Putting rights issues through the looking glass. Not seeking answers, just some food for thought to see whether things could be any different!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Left in West Bengal: Not so Right!

Not for nothing do they say Marxism is dead. The illustrious descendant to the Marxist legacy in India, the Leftist government of West Bengal have proved the statement correct. To say that Indian politics is not dirty would be the most ignorant remark to pass but to say that the Communist parties in India are the cleanest among the dirtiest would have been true, had they not done/encouraged/triggered off what happened in both Singur and Nandigram.
The Communist parties in India swear by their people centric and decentralised approach to governance and since they have been wiped out in almost all States in India, West Bengal stands out as the beacon of that very image. The land reforms process in WB completed in the 1970s still garner them enough vote support, at least from the rural areas to keep them in power, year after year. election after election, over the last three decades. Not that the Left has not done the quintessential flip-flops that has now become synonymous with the Indian political process but in comparison to the key players, these so called flip-flops have been so mild, both in number and content, that the Indian junta still associates some integrity to the Left. People believe(d) that they may not be able to solve India's innumerable problems but at least, will not create any to hinder her progress.
"We are promise-bound to the people [of West Bengal] to take the State forward and not back into darkness; this is our commitment ... For those yet to be convinced [of the need for industrial development] the onus is on us to get them to understand”, said Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal, addressing a mass rally organized by a peasant’s organization in Kolkata on 11 March 2007. Soon after, on 14 March 2007, 14 people were killed and 75 others injured in an incident involving open police firing at a village crowd in Nandigram in East Midnapore district, West Bengal. Nandigram is the site for a chemical plant to be set up by Indonesia’s Salim group, in pursuance of the Central government’s recent Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy.
SEZs are essentially geographical regions that have different economic laws from the laws existing in other parts of the country with the aim of increasing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The government has relaxed a lot of licensing, taxation and tariff restrictions through The Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act 2005. SEZs are said to promote exports, enhance employment opportunities and develop infrastructure. SEZs have been permitted to operate both in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Ever since their conception, SEZs have been faced with considerable criticism from scholars, civil society groups, politicians and the media. The Finance Ministry has expressed concern that SEZs would cause huge revenue losses to the state exchequer but the Commerce Ministry has assured that the investments attracted by the SEZs would far outdo the projected losses. India’s central bank, The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has also expressed its reservation on the viability of granting of huge tax concessions for SEZ development. Ms. Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the political coalition in power, has expressed her disapproval over the impact of SEZs on the rights of displaced farmers.

SEZs are feared to seize thousands of acres of agricultural land from poor farmers in India to be transferred into the hands of private entrepreneurs. Instead of being an instrument of economic progress, SEZs are likely to create economic hardship leading to loss of rich agricultural lands without providing adequate compensation to the farmers/landowners. They have been referred by experts as “islands of affluence in a sea of deprivation”.
The state governments have resorted to coercive techniques to acquire agricultural lands from the farmers. The poor farmers are forced to sell their cultivable lands at much lower rates than the prevailing market rates. Land acquisitions by the state are governed by the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894. Under the 1894 Act, the Central and State governments can acquire land for ‘public purposes and for Companies and for determining the amount of compensation to be made on account of such acquisition’. In a Supreme Court ruling (Jage Ram v. State of Haryana), the scope of the term ‘public purpose’ with regard to land acquisitions was held to include the process of industrialization, which could be challenged only on the ground of ‘colourable exercise of power’.
The government was planning to forcefully acquire agricultural lands from the villagers amidst great local resistance for the purposes of this project, despite their earlier assurance that land would not be acquired without local consent. Violence first erupted in Nandigram on 6 January 2007 when it became public that the West Bengal government was planning to acquire land in the area and clashes between Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) and Trinamool Congress activists claimed 6 lives. Since then, the villagers had blocked entry into the area by digging up roads and breaking bridges, as a mark of their protest against forced land acquisition. Trouble simmered when the police tried to break into the restricted area and was confronted by a 5,000 strong crowd, which resisted their entry into the area by throwing bricks at them. Initially, the police countered the attack with rubber bullets, teargas and lathicharge but when they were unable to disperse the crowd, they open fired. It was reported later that several people went missing after the police-firing incident and there have also been complaints of women being sexually assaulted by police personnel, in the aftermath of the violence. (The Statesman, 20 March 2007)
Many families in Nandigram have been displaced and are living in relief camps, since trouble began in the area. Testimonies from the village residents reveal that there has been looting and destruction of private property, allegedly by the Trinamool Congress backed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (The Committee for Resistance against Land Acquisition). Meanwhile, sporadic clashes between the CPI(M) and the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (BUPC) Committee continue, with each party accusing the other of spurring hostility in the area. Both the parties have been involved in burning houses of poor, innocent villagers in Nandigram, for regaining their political stronghold in the area. (The Times of India, 19 March 2007)

In response to mass protests and demonstrations against police violence and succumbing to pressure from its political allies and opposition alike, the Left government has temporarily withdrawn the land acquisition process in Nandigram and has decided to remove police forces in phases from the region. The government has taken responsibility for the killings in Nandigram. Speaking before the State Legislative Assembly, Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya described the killings as “unfortunate” but justified police action by stating that they acted in self-defence. He said that the police forces were sent to restore the law and order situation in Nandigram and not to acquire land. He reiterated his earlier claim that lands would not be acquired for industrialisation purposes unless the local population was ready for it.
It comes as a great shock that the Marxist government in West Bengal would use such brutal force to silence peasant protestors, who constitute their greatest support base in the state. The Nandigram massacre is a blemish on the pro-peasant image of the Left that it had built over the years with their liberal, pro-poor policies on land reforms and decentralisation. The Nandigram incident raises questions about disproportionate use of force by the police in tense situations.
The violent protests during the acquisition of agricultural lands at Singur in West Bengal for establishing a Tata Motors small car plant have raised serious questions about the whole process of land acquisition by the government in India. A division bench of the Kolkata High Court has ruled in February 2007 that the land acquisition at Singur appeared to be prima facie illegal. The Court said that the West Bengal government had used two legal provisions of the 1894 Act simultaneously to acquire the lands at Singur. The Court has further directed the state to file detailed affidavits explaining its agricultural land acquisition policy and details of the agreements with landowners of these lands and also state the number of Singur farmers who have received compensation for the loss of land.

Strong public protests relating to the establishment of a SEZ in Nandigram, East Midnapore district in West Bengal have led to the temporary withdrawal of the SEZ plan by the West Bengal government. Although the Central government has cleared the SEZ project in Nandigram, the ruling party in the state has decided to slow down the process, evaluate the project and explain the importance of SEZs to the people. Farmers in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have conducted similar protests against mass acquisition of land, thus exposing the loopholes in the SEZ policy.

The sustainability of SEZs is questionable. SEZs have brought into focus the whole issue of displacement and rehabilitation and resettlement. The Central government is said to be finalizing a draft of the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2006. According to reports, the new policy is said to make affected parties stakeholders in the industrial projects by providing them employment in these projects, alternative housing near the location of displacement, along with cash compensation. The new policy is said to cover SEZs and all other projects where land acquisition leads to the displacement of families. However, the draft rehabilitation policy is not without its flaws and has been criticized as being unable to put in place a framework for accountability, transparency and consultation.

Civil society groups have demanded the immediate repeal of the SEZ Act 2005, which in their opinion, is violative of the constitutional right to life and livelihood of the people. These groups have demanded the cancellation of the notified SEZs in various states and return of land. Flooded by violent protests over SEZs, the Central government has decided to put on hold any further clearances for SEZs. It has been decided that even those SEZ projects, which have been cleared, shall be put under the scanner, before they commence work. Kamal Nath, the Minister for Commerce and Industry has recently announced that the proposal from the states will have to mention the kind of lands that shall be acquired and the procedure for such acquisition. The Central government has clarified that it will not proceed with the establishment of new SEZs until a new rehabilitation policy is formulated for displaced persons.

It has become clear that the SEZ Act 2005 has failed to address many of the direct consequences of developing SEZs. Massive land acquisitions are being conducted across India without putting in place a proper legal mechanism for rehabilitation and resettlement of those whose lands are being taken away. The government has also not conducted a thorough socio-economic and environmental impact assessment of the SEZ projects that have been approved so far. The question that needs to be asked at this stage is whether the hurried establishment of the SEZs will lead to equitable and sustainable development? The construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river and the struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to get justice for the displaced has highlighted the devastating impact of development induced displacement. If SEZ projects are allowed to operate in the midst of a legal void addressing the interests of the displaced farmers, it will only deepen class divides and lead to skewed economic growth, hurting rather than boosting equitable development in India. It is encouraging that the government is in the process of finalising a new National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, which, hopefully will address the concerns of those worst affected by such land acquisitions. If equitable development is to be ensured, the government will have to put in place proper legal mechanisms to implement its industrialisation process.


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