A matter of rights of the dispossessed
As many as 60 villagers, including women and minor girls, were arrested by the police on 2 December 2006 from Singur under Hooghly district of West Bengal. In May 2006, the TATA Motors, an Indian multinational company, had proposed to the West Bengal government for setting up a small vehicles factory in the state and asked the state government to provide 1000 acres land in Hooghly district, alongside the new Durgapur Expressway and near Kolkata. Desperate to bring in investments, the CPI (M) government accepted the TATA’s demand readily without considering the proposal. Overwhelmingly enthused with the proposal, the West Bengal government hastily chose the farmland in five villages of Gopalnagar, Beraberi, Bajemelia, Khaser Bheri and Singher Bheri in Singur for the TATA project and started acquiring land without even consulting local bodies. By now the state government acquired 997 acres of very fertile agricultural land in these five villages. Reportedly, less than 27 percent of the 11,000 odd landowners have been willing while those who have acquiesced are either not living in Singur or have done so fearing coercion by the government and the ruling party. Fearing loss of their fertile farm land, the only source of their livelihood, the farmers who have been permanently residing in these villages spontaneously got together to launch a resistance movement under the banner of ‘Krishijami Raksha Samiti’ (Association for the Protection of Agricultural Land).
I. Violations of rights at Singur
On 30 November 2006, prohibitory orders under section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code were clamped to prevent the farmers from resisting forcible and illegal acquisition of their agricultural lands. The Singur area turned into a battlefield since 7 November 2006, when the West Bengal government started deploying huge contingents of armed police and the Rapid Action Force and setting up camps at several places in the area. Plainclothes police informers have been openly moving around in the villages gathering information about resistance plans. Armed policemen have been posted in the village squares and the markets to keep watch on the villagers’ movements.
At about 10 am on 2 December 2006, about 500 local farmers from Beraberi, Bajemalia, Purba Gopal Nagar, Khasher Bheri, Dobandhi, Gopal Nagar villages tried to resist the barbed wire fencing of the 997 acres of fertile and prime agricultural land acquired for the TATA Motors. The police resorted to indiscriminate lathicharge, used rubber bullets and shelled tear gas on the villagers, majority of whom comprised of women and children. A large number of villagers were injured, some of them critically and are undergoing treatment.
A fact finding team of the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) after investigation reported that Mr. Dilip Das (44 years), Mr. Mrityunjoy Patra (52 years), Mr. Tapan Batabyal (53 years) and Mr. Bilas Sarkar (26 years) had to be admitted to Chinsura District Hospital with multiple serious injuries they received in police beatings. The female arrestees at Chandannagar police station alleged that they were manhandled, beaten, molested and sexually abused by the male policemen at the time of arrest and while being transported to the police station. They also alleged that on asking for drinking water at Chandannagar police station, they were given dirty water totally unfit for drinking.
All the arrestees were booked in two cases being Singur Police Case nos 150 & 151 dated 2.12.2006. Thirty eight of them were booked in one case under sections 147/148/149/186/188/447/332/333/353/325/307 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) & 9(b) (2) of Indian Explosive Act (I.E. Act) with section 9 of West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order (W.B.M.P.O.) Act and the rest in another case under section 147/148/149/188/323/353/307 of IPC and 9(b) (2) of I.E. Act.
While 16 women namely – Rangta Munshi, Gargi Sengupta, Swapna Banerjee, Chaitali Bhattacharjee, Dipali Moitra, Sankari Koley, Champa Poila, Padma Dey, Tapasi Das, Sakuntala Das, Sabitri Patra, Sabitri Das, Lakshmi patra, Sandhya Patra, Pratima Dey, Shyamali Das and two minor girls namely- 12-years-old Jhuma Patra, daughter of (d/o) Ashok Patra and Soma Dhara, d/o Sanyasi Dhara of village Ghaser Veri, Singur were detained at Chandannagar police station, 10 men namely – Mr. Shyamal Ghosh son of (s/o) Sibram Ghosh, Mr. Uday Ghosh s/o Madan Mohan Ghosh, Mr. Birat Mlik s/o Late Gokul Malik, Mr. Tushar Kanti Karmakar s/o Late Jugal Kishore Karmakar, Mr. Prabir Ghosh s/o Manik Ch Ghosh, Mr. Swapan Santra s/o Balai Chandra Santra, Mr. Amal Das s/o Narendra Nath Das, Mr. Sanat Sheet s/o Bhadreswar Sheet, Mr. Swarup Patra s/o Baidyanath Patra and Naba Kumar Bag s/o Gokul Chandra Bag were being detained at Chinsura police station and the four seriously injured detainees namely- Mr. Dilip Das (44 years), Mr. Mrityunjoy Patra (52 years), Mr. Tapan Batabyal (53 years) and Mr. Bilas Sarkar (26 years) were lodged at the prison ward of Chinsura District Hospital.
On 3 December 2006, police produced all 18 female detainees before the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate, Chandannagar and the court sent 16 adult females to judicial custody till 8 December 2006 while the two minor girls – Soma Dhara and Jhuma Patra – were released on bail.
Police atrocities at Singur were also raised in the Indian parliament.
II. Special Eviction Zones?
Enthused by the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) operating in China and to attract more foreign direct investment, the Government of India passed the Special Economic Zones Act in 2005. The Special Economic Zones are virtually States within the State where the companies are given fiscal sops, tax concession, exemptions from environmental clearance at the cost of the country and the society.
As on 2 December 2006, as many as 237 SEZs have been approved by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Maharashtra leads among the states with 48 SEZ proposals getting Central clearance, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 45 projects, Karnataka with 29 projects and Tamil Nadu with 25 projects.
The SEZs have been turned into "Special Eviction Zones". The state governments have been primarily allotting prime agricultural lands. The land owners are being forced and induced to manufacture consent for approval of the SEZs.
Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, expressed reservations about the SEZs. At the 7th Congress Chief Minister' conclave held in Nainital in September 2006, Mrs. Gandhi stated "Agricultural land should not normally be diverted to non-agricultural uses. Industry requires land no doubt. But this must be done without jeopardising our agricultural prospects. Farmers must get proper compensation when their land is purchased. Could farmers also not become stake holders in the projects that come up on the land acquired from them? Our resettlement and rehabilitation policies must be strengthened and implemented in an effective and credible manner which will inspire confidence in the people who are displaced”. While the Finance Ministry has also expressed reservations that it would cause a revenue loss of Rs.90,000 crores, the Reserve Bank of India has questioned the tax concessions being granted to SEZ projects.
III. Development and displacement: Indigenous peoples also as targets
Until 1990, about 85.39 lakhs tribals have reportedly been displaced due to industrialization and development projects like dams, power projects, nature conservation but their rehabilitation and resettlement has always remained a neglected subject. For example, tribals constituted 8.2 % of the total population of India, according to the 2001 Census. But they also constituted 55.1 % of the total displaced persons a
s a result of socalled development projects.
The Jharkhand government reportedly signed over 42 MoUs with investors including Mittal Steel, Tata Steel, Jindal Steel and Power Company Limited worth about Rs 1,69,198.26 crores since Jharkhand became a state in 2000. Approximately 47,445 acres of land would be required for the projects in mineral-rich Kolhan Region, which was likely to affect about 10,000 families and cause deforestation of 57,15 kms land. A study by People’s Union for Civil Liberties claimed that over 74 lakh tribals were displaced in Jharkhand by different projects between 1950 and 1990. Out of them, only 18.45 lakhs displaced tribals were rehabilitated.
During 2002-2005 alone, the Orissa government signed 42 MoUs with companies for proposed steel and other plants in the state. The MoU with Korean steel major Pohang Steel Company (Posco) signed on 22 June 2005 for setting up a steel plant at Paradeep in Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa with a total investment of $12 billion was the biggest foreign direct investment so far in India. The project would displace around 4,000 tribal families. About 1.4 million people, most of them tribals, have been reportedly displaced in Orissa between 1951 and 1995 due to dams, canals, mines and other industries. Majority of the IDPs have not received compensation and rehabilitation. Another 80,000 to 1,00,000 tribals from 50 villages in Subdega and Balisankra blocks in Jharsuguda district of Orissa faced imminent displacement due to the proposed dam on the Ib river.
IV. Conclusion: Obsession must not replace rights of the people
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has been projecting itself as the champion of the poor, stands exposed with the Singur incident.
Though the constitutional validity of both the SEZ Act and Haryana SEZ Act have been challenged on 4 December 2006 in the Supreme Court, the previous judgements of the courts on the rehabilitation of the displaced persons have been far from satisfactory. In any event, how many indigenous and tribal communities, the majority of the displaced persons, had access to the Courts in Delhi to establish their rights?
The obsession of making India an “economic superpower” has caught the imagination of the middle class. But, India’s dream of becoming an economic superpower has come with a price – further pauperization and displacement of the poor, mainly the tribals and Dalits. Cautioning about the obsession with the status of “economic superpower”, in his lecture at The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on 17 November 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated “… our goal should be to ensure a prosperous, secure and dignified future for our people and to participate actively in contributing to the evolution of a just world order. Size does give us a certain weight in global affairs and this will get recognized across the world. We will be seen a growth engine. But, this has to be tempered by the realization that the ultimate goal is to work for rule based rather than power based relationships.”
Unless, the rights based approaches are emboldened in the policies and programmes, India will face acute conflict because of the obsession with making India an economic superpower and it is the poor and downtrodden who will continue to endure the suffering.