Wednesday, May 31, 2023

How Electoral Arithmetic Outweighs The Marginalised When It Comes To Evictions

West Bengal

How Electoral Arithmetic Outweighs The Marginalised When It Comes To Evictions

Anti-displacement movements, while often impeding governments’ development plans, have rarely impacted the electoral fortunes of the political parties in Bengal, be it Nandigram and Singur or elsewhere

Vindicated in Singur?: TMC’s Mamata Banerjee sowing mustard seeds in farmland earlier allotted for the Tata’s Nano plant under the rule of the Left Front Photo: Getty Images

Shalbollar byaday agun, birodhi nishan oda
Lyaje jodi tor legechhe agun, swarnolanka poda
Fosoler gan geyechhilo jara samyer dhwoja dhore
Ekhon tarai poday fosol pnujir dalali kore…
(Set afire the sal wood pole barricades, fly the flag of opposition/
If your tail has caught fire, burn down Golden Lanka/
Those who sang the songs of harvest, holding aloft the flag of equality/
Are now burning crops, playing corporate stooges)

The song is from singer-songwriter Kabir Suman’s 2007 album, Nandigram, a collection of protest songs by arguably the most influential musical personality in Bengal in the past three decades. The backdrop was the seventh Left Front government’s mission to acquire farmland for setting up mega industrial projects such as the Tata Nano plant in Singur, Indonesia’s Salim group’s chemical hub in Nandigram and the Jindal steel plant in Salboni. Farmers’ protests broke out at all places. The Left has always fought for the rights of farmers over their land. But now they were telling farmers to part with their land, some of which yielded four crops a year, to make way for industrial growth. A number of prominent Leftist cultural personalities swung into protest, visiting Singur and Nandigram, meeting people and addressing rallies. The likes of Suman and Pratul Mukhopadhyay penned songs and sang them during mass meetings. The chief of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee, whose political career had reached its nadir after the blows from the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2006 assembly elections, jumped onto the bandwagon of leftist cultural personalities and intellectuals, and smaller Left parties and organisations. “Land to the tillers,” she said, hijacking the old Leftist slogan from the CPI(M). When the CPI(M) cited that the existing land acquisition act of 1894 gave no scope for obtaining the consent of the landowners and that they were trying to offer the best rehabilitation package possible under the existing law, Banerjee brought forth the old Leftist argument: the people on the streets have created laws and will create a new one. The times were interesting. The CPI and the CPI(M) were part of the movement against the South Korean steel giant POSCO’s proposed plant in Odisha’s Kalinganagar as well as movements against Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Maharashtra. But in West Bengal, Medha Patkar, who had been an ally of the CPI(M) and the CPI in different mass movements against displacement in different parts of the country, was now barred by the Left Front government from entering Singur and Nandigram. After Patkar managed to dodge the police and visit several villages, the CPI(M) and Patkar fiercely criticised each other. The chain of reactions triggered by events at Singur and Nandigram isolated the CPI(M) from the broader Leftist camp in the anti-displacement movements taking place in other parts of the country, stalled all three projects in Bengal, toppled the 34-year-old Left Front regime in 2011 and led to the enactment of a new land acquisition law by the parliament in 2013.

As late author-activist Mahasweta Devi had told the author during an interview in 2012, one reason the movement ousted a mighty government was that Banerjee’s TMC was perhaps the only mainstream political party with a significant mass base to fully throw its weight behind such a movement, taking conglomerates like the Tatas head-on. Banerjee had nothing to lose, and so could take a path that major parties rarely tread. The CPI and CPI(M) did participate in anti-displacement movements in other states but were marginal forces there.

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Anti-displacement movements have often been long-drawn and involved bloodshed, for example, in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, but rarely have they resulted in a change in government or enactment of new legislations. Even the country’s longest-drawn anti-displacement movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan going on in western-central India since the 1980s, has not had an electoral impact.

Bengal stood as an exception, possibly because the dominant influence of Leftist ideals spanning six decades brought thousands of people to the streets expressing solidarity with the farmers.

Speaking to Outlook, Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI(ML)(Liberation), which has taken part in many anti-displacement movements in different parts of the country, including in Singur and Nandigram, says that electoral impact like in Bengal is rare and that, “Those affected by such displacements are, more often than not, marginalised people and that is why the question of their rights and lives also remain marginal, especially when we look at it from an electoral perspective. It’s a weakness in our democratic system and values.” He adds that the movement for the statehood of Jharkhand also included a strong anti-displacement sentiment but displacements continued even after the formation of the new state. “Political parties tend to believe that they will get away with forced displacement for developmental projects because electoral dynamics are totally different. They are not driven by the concerns for the marginalised and the oppressed. Climate change and its impact have emerged as such an important issue globally, threatening large-scale disaster and displacement but climate and environment are hardly ever electoral issues,” he said. Another example can be found in Odisha, where despite a series of protests defending the tribal people’s rights to Jal-Jangal-Jameen (water-forest-land) and against displacement drives for major industrial projects, the Naveen Patnaik government never faced any threat to its power.

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Broken home in Nandigram
Broken home in Nandigram Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

Parties changing their stances after coming to power is not a rare occurrence either. As Assam ‘sMLA and rights activist Akhil Gogoi pointed out, the BJP stood as a strong critic of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project that people in Assam feared would cause distress due to flooding and consequent displacement. However, the BJP became a supporter of the project after the party came to power in Assam and argued that the concerns that were previously raised had all been addressed. Gogoi’s organisations, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Raijor Dal, keep staging demonstrations whenever the project is hit by natural calamities and accidents—which agitators had always predicted—but the scale has decreased.

Mamata Banerjee, too, showed certain changes in her approach after coming to power in 2011, though only on a small scale. In 2012, when a section of her allies during the Singur-Nandigram movements tried to stall the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority’s drive to raze two slums to the ground at Nonadanga area of Murshidabad district, the government not only arrested local residents and rights activists but also charged them under strong penal provisions, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that Banerjee had herself dubbed ‘draconian’,  barely a couple of years before.  It was an unbelievable role reversal. During 2006-08, bohiragoto or ‘outsider’ became a politically debatable term, as the CPI(M) blamed ‘outsiders’ for creating trouble in Singur and Nandigram, while Banerjee and her leftist allies argued that every Indian citizen was entitled to express solidarity with oppressed people in any part of the country. In 2012, the TMC government was blaming ‘outsiders’ for creating trouble in Nonadanga.

The Nonadanga slum eviction did not impact the TMC electorally, perhaps because the scale of eviction was small and also because the TMC kept renewing its pledge to protecting farmland.

The Nonadanga slum eviction did not impact the TMC electorally, perhaps because the scale of eviction was small (about 1000 people livinf in 230 shanties) and also because the TMC kept renewing its pledge to protecting farmland. The party played a key role behind the replacing of the 1894 Act with the new Land Acquisition Act of 2013 and opposed every amendment that allegedly diluted the protections given to farmers. In the 11 years that she has ruled, her government has indeed not taken up any large- scale eviction or displacement drive.

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However, Banerjee’s government now needs to relocate a large number of people for two mega projects: to mine on India’s largest coal reserve in Birbhum district’s Deocha-Pachami and to build a 1,000 MW pumped storage system in Purulia district. While the former is still in the planning stage, the Turga project has obtained all the clearances necessary. The government has decided to go slow. In Birbhum, they are focusing on purchasing land from those willing to sell and to work in a phase-by-phase manner with whatever land they can obtain without much trouble. In Purulia, where the local tribal population has taken out several rallies in recent weeks, the administration is trying to open channels of discussion with the agitators to come to a mutual arrangement. “We wouldn’t involve the police,” says a top bureaucrat, speaking to Outlook on the condition of anonymity. A senior TMC minister says that they would not give the CPI(M) any opportunity to build another anti-displacement movement.

The CPI(M), currently at its lowest parliamentary and organisational strength in the state, has vowed to resist forcible eviction in Deocha-Pachami. What opportunities the state government will give them remains to be seen. But in Himachal Pradesh, where it has been a marginal force, the CPI(M) state unit is gearing up to mobilise people against large hydroelectric projects in the pipeline. “Our farmers’ wing organisers are actively engaged with local people to prevent any more disastrous dams from coming up in Himachal,” says a member of the CPI(M)’s Himachal state committee, unwilling to be named. Whether the possibility of a strong anti-displacement movement in the wake of the currently unfolding disaster in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath prompts the Himachal government to review or reassess the planned projects also remains to be seen.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Political Power of Evictions")