February 26, 2021
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A Question Marked In Red

'Is this SEZ model that implies massive displacement and distress really the only way? If the West Bengal government thinks so, then it also has to accept that the inevitable consequences are going to be a repetition of Nandigram across the state.'

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A Question Marked In Red

This piece originally appeared in the Indian Express and is carried here for the record

As a lifelong Leftist, I am deeply shocked by recent events in the countryside of West Bengal. On December 31, a group of us went to Singur, spent the whole day there, visited 4 out of the 5 most affected villages which border the land that has been taken over. We had conversations with at least 50-60 villagers. Almost all rushed to us and told us their complaints. 

From this brief but not necessarily unrepresentative sample, three things became very clear, because of which the West Bengal government’s version cannot be accepted. One, the land, far from being infertile or mono-cropped, as has been stated repeatedly, is sextremely fertile and multi-cropped. We saw potatoes and vegetables already growing after the aman rice has been harvested, some of them actually planted behind the now fenced-in area which the peasants had lost. Two, there is no doubt that the vast bulk of the villagers we met are opposed to the take-over of land and most are refusing compensation. It should also be kept in mind that at best the consent of the registered landholders as well as sharecroppers is being taken. But agricultural production also involves sharecroppers who are not covered by Operation Barga since they have come in later, as well as agricultural labour. Under the government-announced scheme for compensation, such people are not being remembered. 

Three, we found much evidence of force being employed, particularly on the nights of September 25 and December 2. We met many people — men and also a large number of women — who had been beaten up, their injuries still visible, including an 80 year old woman. 

What the villagers repeatedly alleged was that along with the police, and it seems more than the police, party activists, whom the villagers call ‘cadres’ — which has sadly become a term of abuse — did the major part of the beating up. Clearly, the whole thing had been done without consultation, with very little transparency, and in a very undemocratic manner. 

As for the official claims of land being mono-cropped, the Economic and Political Weekly in an editorial of December 23 has pointed out that the last land survey of the area was done in the 1970s which means that the records with the government are backdated. Surely there must be much more investigation on the ground and consultation with panchayats and other local bodies. No one, not even the government, has actually claimed that such consultation has taken place. It was done entirely from the top. 

These mistakes, to put it mildly, are being repeated on a much bigger scale in the Nandigram region. This has become far more serious because a much greater area of land is being taken — with the same lack of transparency, absence of consent and massive brutality. Once again, one is hearing reports of CPM cadres engaged in an offensive against peasants. What is happening at Nandigram is a near civil war situation. 

The West Bengal government seems determined to follow a particular path of development involving major concessions both to big capitalists like the Tatas and multinationals operating in SEZs. Yet the strange thing is that these, particularly the latter, are things which Left parties and groups as well as many others have been repeatedly and vehemently opposing. No less a person than the CPM General Secretary in the course of last week made 2-3 statements attacking SEZs. The CPM has been at the forefront of the struggles against such developments in other parts of the country. 

Surely there must be a search, at least, for paths of development that could balance necessary industrial development with social concerns and transparency and democratic values. Is this SEZ model that implies massive displacement and distress really the only way? If the West Bengal government thinks so, then it also has to accept that the inevitable consequences are going to be a repetition of Nandigram across the state. 

This is the price that will be paid by government, ordinary people as well as investors for this model of development.

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