Why is the Left giving up Singur's arable land for Tata's cars?

Published: Monday 15 January 2007

Why is the Left giving up Singur's arable land for Tata's cars?

-- The Hindu of December 13, 2006 published a write-up on Singur on its op-ed page "Some facts, please" by cpi(m) politburo member and leading intellectual Brinda Karat. She was countering what she called a smear campaign against the cpim) over the acquisition of land for the proposed Tata Motors project at Singur. There are some more facts, however, that I would like to bring to her notice. But before that I would also like to thank her for having brought some key issues to the fore. My own rejoinder is partly based on the "Factsheet on the Tata Motors Project in Singur Compiled by the West Bengal Government", and sent by e-mail by the Delhi branch of the cpi(m), a few days ago. Other facts that I will mention have been compiled through long and laborious research. (I can furnish sources if necessary).

I would like to take up the points as Ms Karat raised them.

She says that the government has letters of consent from the owners of 952 acres (385 hectares, ha) of land (of the 997 acres [403 ha] required for the project at Singur), expressing their willingness to sell their land. Twelve thousand farmers, including marginal farmers and share-croppers, have received their due compensation and the rest are waiting for it.

This would mean that the government now needs to acquire only 45 acres (18 ha) for the project. And it is for these 45 acres that 20,000 police personnel, drawn from six districts, were deployed in Singur on December 2. These police personnel turned on women, children and old people with sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse the crowd gathered to resist the 'fencing' of the land for the project. Even the West Bengal government has stopped claiming, after December 2, that owners of 952 acres (385 ha) have willingly parted with their land.

The Paschim Banga Khet Majdoor Samiti says it has photocopies of land deeds for 418 acres (169 ha); these have been obtained from farmers who have refused to part with their farm land and who are resisting the state government's move. The state government, however, has fenced off their land for the Tata project, with the help of ruling party cadres. On the other hand, over 50 farmers who had initially sold their land but who, now emboldened by the movement at Singur, have returned their cheques and want their land back. These farmers have said that they were forced to sell, that they were threatened and fed untruths (Dainik Statesman, Kolkata, December 14, page 5).

Karat says there are 275 registered sharecroppers in Singur, and 170 unregistered sharecroppers. She says that according to government records in the five areas where land is being acquired for the project, about 7,700 people, including 1,000 women, are engaged in non-agricultural work; another 700 are "involved in some type of household industry". Only 1,230 people in this area, she says, are engaged in agricultural work and most of them have to do other work to make both ends meet.

There is no need to consult the state agriculture department's statistics or 1970 land reports to find out that Singur is agriculturally rich. It is enough to just take a walk through the area. Apart from paddy, potatoes and many other kinds of vegetables are grown in this green stretch. Farmers in Singur say they grow not just two or three crops in a year, but six or seven. It is because this land is so rich that farmers are resisting the acquisition of land for a factory.If most people in Singur are engaged in non-agricultural work, do fairies till the land to grow six crops a year?

The Kolkata-based citizen's group Nagarik Mancha says that according to the Floud Commission (a body set up by the colonial state in 1938 to look into undivided Bengal's agricultural problems) report, the number of registered and unregistered sharecroppers in Bengal is a fifth of all landowners. The commission's criteria is accepted even today. The factsheet compiled by the West Bengal government puts the number of landowners in the area earmarked for the project as 12,000. In that case, the number of sharecroppers cannot be less than 2,400.

According to government reports, Karat says, 90 per cent of the land at Singur is single-crop. To support that statement, she says that land transactions are very frequent in Singur, that people constantly sell their land. She adds that the compensation received by farmers in lieu of land acquired for the Tata project is three times the land price in the area.

The government records Karat quotes date back to the 1970s, when agriculture in the area was rain-fed. At present, the area is irrigated under the state government's Ghia-Kunti project, fed by the Kunti/Kana, Julkia and Daiba Khal canals. There are four deep tubewells sunk by the government, and 27 privately-owned and three government tubewells. It is hard to understand why farmers, who depend on non-agricultural work to survive, should take the trouble to install mini-pumps and kerosene/ diesel-operated pumps to cultivate single-crop land that brings them no profits. As for the prices that farmers are being offered, the government is offering Rs 10,000 to Rs 13,000 for a katha (60-70 sq metres) of land. The market rates in the area range between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000 a katha, depending on proximity to the main road.

In the end, there is this final question What if someone is unwilling to sell land even at a higher price? Is it the responsibility of a democratic government to force an unwilling landowner to sell so that his/her land can be acquired for a private party?

Karat says that allegations of sexual harassment of women at Singur are just so many lies; not a single woman, she says, has been harassed. If police were indeed beating up people, she asks, would the media not spot the injured victims? The police only chase away people and lob tear gas shells when they try to resist the fencing work.

Karat is a respected member of the National Women's Council. Can it be that she is not aware that according to a Supreme Court ruling, sexual innuendos, aggressive sexual postures and language count as sexual harassment? Or is it that these things do not matter when rural women are at the receiving end? Women at Beraberi, Purbapara, Kaser Bheri and Bajemelia shivered as they recounted, four days after the incident, how a 10,000-strong police force chased them over paddy fields and cauliflower fields on December 2. The tv channels edited out the language the policemen were using, it was too filthy to be aired.

If Karat had cared to flip through the newspapers during the past few days in Kolkata, she would have noticed the picture of Sachin Das's broken roof at Khaser Bheri. This 73-year-old invalid gentleman was sleeping at home, 600 metres away from the disputed area. The men in uniform broke into his house and beat him up. His daughter-in-law, Rita Das, was breast-feeding when a rubber bullet hit one of her legs. Ramkumar Satra and Dukhiram Dhara were injured in a police lathicharge. Maya Das of Bera Beri had a tear gas shell bursting on her foot. These are just a few of the many incidents on December 2. Setting fire to harvested paddy and trampling on standing crops do not, I suppose, count as atrocities.

In the end, taxpayers who do not live in Singur might have a question for the state government. They might want to know that since it is their money that is being used to pay Rs 137.49 crore in compensation for the land for the Tatas' Rs 1 lakh car project, what is it that they stand to gain from the whole business?

Joya Mitra is an activist-writer, well-known for her prison memoirs, Hanyaman. Sustainable irrgation and agriculture are also her areas of interest

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