//India: The Cost of Being Left Behind

India: The Cost of Being Left Behind

Ranjit Goswami, OhMyNews.COM , 04 Dec 2006

Socio-political turmoil over land acquisitions

Singur, a nondescript, sleepy village in the district of Hooghly, 40 kilometers from Kolkata — erstwhile Calcutta, the capital of India under British rule until 1912 — has suddenly become a flashpoint of interest in local politics drawing the attention of NGO activists, academicians and economists.

There are three direct stakeholders in this newfound interest:

Firstly, local farmers and villagers, whose lands are being acquired for a Tata Motors project.

Secondly, the government of West Bengal, a state ruled by CPI(M)-led left-wing political parties that have been in power since 1977.

And thirdly, Tata Motors (Bloomberg: [email protected], Reuters: TAMO.BO) has been for the past few years pursuing a dream project: a 100,000-rupee (around U.S.$2,200) car for the masses in India and other developing countries. A prototype having been successfully developed, they want to set-up a greenfield venture to commercialize the car.

Incidentally, it was Tata Motors (erstwhile TELCO) that built India's first indigenous automobile.

The West Bengal government is responsible for the deindustrialization of the state that took place during their 25-year rule, during which it missed the information technology bus. West Bengal now wants to undo its mistake and take on aggressive industrialization to achieve in the next 10 years what other states did in 35 years. In competitive economics, it's never easy playing catch up.

Farmers and villagers have opposed the project because part of the state government's land acquisition includes their 1,000 acres (almost 4 million square meters) of farmlands.

In India, 70 percent of people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Many of them live on less than $2 a day. This is the same government that earlier implemented agricultural reform that saw part of the right to farmland being given to the landless farm laborers. Many within this group now feel the present round of land acquisitions for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) will result in a reversal of earlier reforms.

Last week saw some popular show-biz politics around that event in West Bengal, a state that accounted for more than 25 percent of India's GDP during its glory days not too long ago. Members of the state assembly fought each other and broke furniture within the assembly.

Allied earlier with the BJP-led NDA, Congress Party member Mamata Banerjee has set up her own regional political party — Trinamool Congress ("Trinamool" means "grassroots"). She is opposing the acquisition of agricultural farmland for this project.

Medha Patkar, a famous and respected NGO activist who has taken up many cases in India, stated that both breaking furniture in the assembly and breaking the bones of protesting farmers were wrong.

Trinamool Congress called for a 12-hour state "bandh" (strike) on Dec. 1 after its members created a ruckus in assembly on Nov. 30. On Dec. 2, state administrators apparently cracked down on the farmers' agitation. And if all this wasn't enough, more bandhs will follow now, one being planned for 24 hours on Dec. 5 by SUCI, a Congress-led trade union body, and another by the state's trade wing on Dec. 14.

Many showcase the clash as the price to be paid for late industrialization. There's a cost attached to everything. Increasingly, many of the downtrodden in society have realized that there are costs for being left behind as well. The state was the primary cause of their backwardness, and then one fine morning, the state realizes its mistake and tries to undo the damages through its subjects, again. So the people are hit with a double whammy by the state.

In this whole affair, the state becomes the winner. Tata Motors, following norms of the land, will set up a factory and will make profits or losses based on their capabilities. The state, irrespective of Tata making profits or losses will make money through levies (taxes) because, at present, agriculture is not taxable in India (rather subsidies flow into it). Even at a lower estimate of 1 billion rupees (U.S.$22 million) in a perpetual levy that the state and central governments are likely to accrue, with the prices of land expected to go up eventually all over India and more so in Singur with this project, it may be questioned why the farmers get paid at present market prices for forceful evictions.

A recent report, "Maharashtra Farmers Fight Government With Google Earth," showed how the government in another state lied to its farmers in a similar land acquisition scheme — more so to the poorer farmers who are the major vote-bank for any government in India — when it took over double cropland by declaring it arid or single cropland. In a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention, these so-called farmers, with the help of Google Maps, showed that the land was indeed double cropland. In an effort to take advantage of the ignorance of these backward people, the state stooped low in its mad rush for industrialization by depriving the farmers of their legitimate rights.

At the same time, welfare spending meant for the poorer sections of society has been dwindling rapidly all over India. The poor farmers are increasingly being dispossessed of their only known assets. Over time, a majority of them will be marginalized in their own ancient land.

Tata claimed that the project would bring local benefits and opportunities. That's not being questioned; it would happen. However, the skill sets needed to cash in on the newfound opportunities will be supplied mostly by others in a competitive market economy.

It's the same story all over the world. As states get poorer, they can't bargain with industries for a better deal. Backward states with poor infrastructure and records must follow more of a beggars-can't-be-choosers model while vying for investments. And that gets passed on to the people of the state. A similar story is unfolding in Singur, and in many other tribal Indian areas today, as governments suddenly eye their lands and minerals for industrial usage and growth.

The cost of being left behind is simply not having choices. In areas that didn't see any development under state administration for years in our quest for civilization, suddenly there's a call for development and its demands are being forced upon an underdeveloped lot whose ignorance makes them easier targets. It's this lot who don't even know which doors to knock on for help — they can't go to (or afford to go to) court to get a stay order as otherwise practiced by those who know their rights. The cost of being left behind is to be easy prey, and thereby suffer in paving the way for mostly others' developments.

©2006 OhmyNews