Saturday, February 2, 2008

Wealth creation using an alien model in Nandigram and Singur

Nandigram and Singur: The Other Side of the Indian Coin
Saturday, 02 February 2008 Written by Akanksha Rajput

Development is never going to be a costless enterprise: especially in a country as vast and as important as India. Recently the Indian government and some states have set up Special Economic Zones in various areas- these zones are supposed to create wealth for the country and the surrounding population but our research demonstrates that that isn't true. That Special Economic Zones will in some parts of India lead to real hardship, they will lead the destruction not the creation of jobs and they bring with them an alien model of wealth creation which will not work within India or for the Indian masses.

(Click for larger image)To analyse what goes on in these zones, I and three colleagues (Vineet Singh Bihan, Arnab Kar and Ganesha, our driver) visited two particular areas. In Nandigram, an area where the beauty and simplicity of the landscape and lifestyle meet the fear and uncertainty of the new India, we saw a particular manifestation of a much greater problem. Near the port of Haldia, around 300,000 people live and work. About 80% of the population are involved in agriculture in various ways. Many like Sheikh Abdul are sharecroppers or Bhagchashi (in Bengali) depending entirely on the prosperity of the rural economy. Abdul who became our local guide earned about 60-70 Indian Rupees a day but thanks to the violence of March to November 2007 was out of work. His plight is not unusual in this area- particularly as after the declaration of a Special Economic Zone by the government, the ministers loftily informed the local population that they would receive no compensation for their land and furthermore should be grateful for the privilege of having the Zone sited there. Indeed ministers informed the local population that around 100,000 new jobs would be created by a Petrochemical plant to be placed there. As Hasina Lata, the wife of the local school teacher, put it such visions were mere fantasy: afterall how could farmers who have never worked in anything but farming and lack formal education suddenly turn into trained chemical workers at the swish of a ministerial wand.

(Click for larger image)Things are more serious even than this picture might indicate. We found evidence of confusion and alarm on the ground. Sheikh Rashid, the local cable operator, told us that the lines into the village had been cut by the state government. The Village Head did not really represent the concerns of the local people to higher authorities either- the village was cut off both from authority and from finding out news about its own fate. That's not to say that everyone in Nandigram is unhappy. We found people like Gurucharan Das, a local tea shop operator, who anticipates economic growth and prosperity. Others like Kesari Gupta have been reassured by government proclamations about the matter. But the security of villagers remains in question, especially as the state police have joined in efforts to suppress concern about the matter. There are tales of houses being destroyed and villagers being beaten up. This doesn't fit with the democratic India that we all would like to see nor for its aspirations for its people to be treated equally.

Passing to the second area we looked at, Singur, the picture is very similar. In Singur about 300 acres of farming land was awarded to a car factory. (Another 600 acres of government and other land was also awarded to the same factory.) In Singur those 300 acres are some of the most fertile agricultural land around- they supply hundreds of people with employment and even more with the basic neccessities of life. Singur has seen like Nandigram protests- and partly because of a more educated agricultural workforce has seen even more questions raised about the legality of the confiscation. The reaction though has been violent.

After one particular protest, Tepasi Malik, a 16 year old girl, was captured going to the toilet, dragged into the confiscated area, she was gang raped repeatedly and then burnt alive to remove any trace of the rapes.

Does it have to be this way though? There are arguments about the ways that economies develop and there are good arguments for industrialisation. Afterall building factories brings huge profits to a country and to its peoples. But it doesn't seem logical to throw out thousands of years of expertise in a desire to chase the West. Afterall India has always been a fertile land, famous for its farmers and it can become a bread basket for the rest of the world.

Rich states within the subcontinent like the Punjab have shown the way by demonstrating that industrialising agriculture can work, can become as profitable as industrialisation itself. Agriculture is one sector that is never going to be obsolete: everybody needs food. The West Bengal Government cannot possibly say no to such programs as it syncs with its communist ideology: welfare of the farmers/ poor. They must take a cue from the village models in Punjab and replicate them. Once the farmers start understanding their true worth and getting small support from anyone and everyone who can help, they can dream of a better lifestyle. With better lifestyle comes the power of knowing their rights, and remedies should these rights be infringed. Villages are not a separate part of our country. Farmers cannot be synonymous with “the poor”. A farmer is just as much a part of this country as you and I are.

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