Last week, eminent Left-leaning historian Professor Sumit Sarkar critiqued the West Bengal land acquisition policy for SEZs in a newspaper article. He was also a co-signatory to a statement issued by eminent scholars and activists. The CPI (M) leaders immediately countered by arguing that "several distinguished individuals have fallen prey to the misinformation campaign launched by the opponents in West Bengal.". Arundhati Roy, a co-signatory to the statement, has responded by saying, "I don’t think I am so stupid. I am not a puppet. I don’t think people like Sumit Sarkar are victims of any propaganda...I don’t make a huge distinction between the political parties any more. They are all taking us for a ride. When the CPI(M) was on the pavement with Medha Patkar on Narmada and other projects, why should it resent our help to people in Singur and Nandigram who need our support?"
The West Bengal chief minister's response of January 11 to Professor Sumit Sarkar:
I have seen the statement made by you and some other distinguished intellectuals and activists on the Singur and Nandigram problems. I would like to apprise you of the state government’s position in regard to West Bengal industrialisation.
In 1977, the Left Front government came to power in West Bengal. Earlier in 1967 and 1968, two United Front governments were formed in West Bengal but they lasted 9 and 13 months respectively. But during these two short periods the land reform movement in the state rose to a high pitch and the zamindari system faced a very big challenge from the movement which helped mobilise the peasants of West Bengal on a massive scale under the leadership of the Left forces. In the 1970s, the political scene in West Bengal passed through many changes bringing about a major shift in the situation with the installation of the Left Front government in 1977. Because of the land reform measures of our government, 78 per cent of the state’s land now belongs to the marginal and poor peasants. This is unprecedented in the entire country. Owing to the land reform programme of the state government and pro-people activities of panchayats, important changes have taken place in the rural sector of West Bengal. The purchasing power of the rural people has gone up and the state has achieved a massive increase in its agricultural production in recent years. West Bengal is now regarded as a leader in the production of rice and vegetables.
It is time to assess the present situation of the state realistically and objectively. The fragmentation of land has become inevitable with the division of property among the children after the death of the father in a rural family. The prices of agricultural inputs are now increasing. The rise in agricultural production has led to a situation in which the peasants do not get remunerative prices. At present, 68 per cent of the people are engaged in agricultural work. The number of landless people has started increasing. In the current turn of the situation there is reason to doubt whether our success in the agricultural sector can be maintained if we follow the same agenda. Faced with this situation, it is imperative for us to accelerate the pace of industrial development in the state while sustaining our success on the agricultural front.
In West Bengal, the contributions of agriculture, industry and service sectors are 26 per cent, 24 per cent, and 50 per cent respectively to SDP. We should create more favourable conditions for generating employment through industrialisation. It is incumbent on us to move ahead, otherwise there would be the end of history. The process of economic development evolves from agriculture to industry. The journey is from villages to cities. The process of change is true for the Marxists also.
For setting up new industries West Bengal needs more land. But in our state farmland constitutes 62 per cent of the total land, while the fallow land is only 1 per cent and the forestland is 13 per cent. The urban and industrial sectors constitute 24 per cent of the total land. These figures show the constraint under which we are working to pursue our objective of industrialisation in the state. Under the circumstances, the farmland, in some measure, has to be utilised for industrialisation. We are earnestly endeavouring to make the least use of fertile land for the purpose of setting up industries.
Much is being talked about the land acquisition for the proposed project at Singur. The economic benefit to be accrued from this project will be much higher than that obtained now from several plots of land used for agricultural purposes at Singur. We are giving adequate compensation to the landowners for the acquisition of land. It is our firm belief that the economically backward people of Singur will be greatly benefited after the setting up of the proposed project. An elaborate scheme for rehabilitation has been drawn up. Besides the motor factory, a large number of ancillary units will be set up. As a result, employment opportunities will be created there on a vast scale. The move is on to employ a good number of villagers to the projects after imparting technical training to them. It is the moral responsibility of the state government to see to it that all land-losers in Singur get direct and indirect employment.
To quicken the economic development of West Bengal we are making efforts to set up SEZs in some areas of the state. Our priority is to earmark 50 per cent of each SEZ for setting up industries. The SEZ cannot primarily be meant for the real estate business. But in various other parts of India, more than 300 SEZs are being set up with the thrust on promoting the real estate business. We are opposed to this move. In West Bengal, we have already received some proposals for establishing SEZs. One chemical hub will be set up at Nandigram in Southern Bengal and we are contemplating the setting up of an electronics hub at Siliguri in North Bengal.
I have already made clear our stand regarding the Nandigram issue. We seek cooperation from all concerned to sort out the problem. The state government pays full respect to the democratic process.
At present, West Bengal needs more manufacturing industries. We are attaching importance to such sectors as iron and steel, chemicals, petrochemicals, engineering, leather, cement and food processing. Emphasis is also being laid on promoting the labour intensive small-scale and medium industries. We are also according priority to the setting up of knowledge-based industries (IT, bio-technology). It is necessary to utilise our human and material resources in ample measure.
Our government is stepping up efforts to develop the infrastructure sector. West Bengal is a power surplus state. We are proceeding with our plans for creating significant capacity addition to the power sector. Three new satellite townships, world-class expressways, ports, a sea-port, a logistics hub, construction of roads and bridges are some of the important initiatives undertaken by us. Thousands of young people are seeking jobs. They will shape the future of our country. We cannot fail them. We must try our best to live up to the people’s expectations.