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West Bengal Elections 2021: Why poll outcomes at Singur and Nandigram will alter India’s land acquisition policy

Explained: Who stands where on the acquisition of farm land for industrialization, and what it could mean for the future of industry in West Bengal and the rest of India

March 31, 2021 / 02:31 PM IST
File image: Banerjee in Singur on September 2, 2008. (Image: Reuters/Stringer - India)

File image: Banerjee in Singur on September 2, 2008. (Image: Reuters/Stringer - India)

It’s not only a do or die battle for the incumbent chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, in Nandigram and for her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), in Singur. The outcome of the polls will also have a strong bearing on the land acquisition policy of India—a major irritant towards ushering in industrialization in the country.

As Mamata Banerjee takes on her one-time fellow traveller and a leading light of the anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram, Suvendu Adhikari, the important issue of industrialization at the cost of acquiring farm land remains buried under the high-voltage campaign of one-upmanship and blame game.

Why land acquisition ran into trouble at Singur and Nandigram
With agricultural output plateauing since the 1990s and lack of jobs impacting the state’s economy, the Left Front government, under chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in West Bengal, had embarked on the path of industrialization. Singur and Nandigram were supposed to be the two showpieces of a new Bengal, with Tata’s Nano factory slated to roll out the cheapest car from Singur and Indonesia’s Salim Group planning to set up an SEZ in Nandigram.

But both the projects ran into rough weather as the landowners and sharecroppers in Singur and Nandigram refused to part with their fertile land. The land ceiling act and redistribution of land had given rise too many owners in West Bengal, and individually negotiating with each owner was impossible. Hence, the state government had to step in and acquire land at the behest of the corporate groups. This was done on the basis of an archaic 1894 land act under the British which neither defined the compensation package nor laid down proper rules for rehabilitation of the displaced. Further, the widespread discontent and mishandling of previously displaced people during land acquisition for large dams had made people distrust the government’s intention.

How Singur and Nandigram influenced India’s land policy
In those watershed moments of 2006 in Singur and 2007 in Nandigram, two tragic things happened: The brutal murder of Tapasi Malik, whose father was against land acquisition, in Singur in 2006, and firing by West Bengal police in 2007 in Nandigram that killed 14 anti-land acquisition protesters.

These incidents sealed the fate of the West Bengal government’s effort to acquire land. The murder was blamed on the pro-land acquisition elements with links to the ruling Left Front government in Bengal. The two incidents not only put a spanner in the process of setting up manufacturing industries in the state but it also robbed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM-led Left Front, which was at the helm of power in the state, of its ethical and moral compass of representing the poor, the marginalized, the share croppers and small farmers.

For Mamata Banerjee, who was at the forefront of the anti-land acquisition movement, there was no looking back. TMC’s slogan of "Ma, Maati, Manush" was also coined during this time as a mark of respect to the women (Ma) who protested against the land acquisition, the place of dwelling (Maati) and respect for human beings (Manush) per se.

But, most importantly, on macro level, it did set the clock back on achieving any kind of consensus on acquiring land for industrial purposes. It became electorally suicidal for any political outfit to push for land reforms which makes it easy for state governments and private players to acquire land for industry.

As the Left Front continued its political free fall, neither the Central government nor any of the state government had the nerve to acquire agricultural land for industry. Be it POSCO’s proposed steel plant in Odisha or the proposal for world’s largest refinery in Nanar, Maharashtra, the projects had to be scrapped or moved out due to opposition as well as governments unwilling to put their political capital at stake. Even, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, is facing a few issues over land acquisition.

The problems with India’s land acquisition policy
Taken aback by anti-land acquisition agitations across India, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had brought in new land policy. But, it was heavily tilted towards protecting farmers’ and land owners’ interest. The 2013 Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act was a direct fallout of industries or state governments wanting to acquire land on the one hand, and the need to protect the interest of unwilling farmers or offer them proper compensation on the other. The 2013 Act not only fixes the compensation to be provided to the farmers according to the location of land, but also made it mandatory to conduct socio-economic assessment of the acquisition, making the process even more cumbersome.

(File photo) Prime Minister Narendra Modi in West Bengal, on July 16, 2018. The 2019 Lok Sabha election saw BJP candidates leading in Singur but trailing by a big margin in Nandigram. (File photo) Prime Minister Narendra Modi in West Bengal in 2018. The BJP, the Left-Congress-ISF alliance and even a section of the TMC is talking about industrialization in Singur now.

Even the Modi government, which brought an ordinance to facilitate land acquisition, had only dropped the assessment part. But, even then, it had to step back with the promise of not bringing it back. This was the only Bill where the BJP government has made a hasty retreat and the importance it accords is evident, given the government has shown no desire to repeal the Farm Bills 2020 or the Citizenship Amendment Act despite country-wide protests.

The issues of what constitutes a proper compensation, what should become of agricultural labourers and the question of consent—whether it should be 80 per cent or 100 per cent or 60 per cent—continues to bog down any effort to hammer out an acceptable land acquisition policy. The nature of the sticking points along with the lack of a political will has made land acquisition a political hot potato for any elected government whether in the state or at the Centre.

Winds of change in Singur, Nandigram?
But there might be winds of change in the two assembly constituencies since the heady days of 2006 and 2007. Media reports have shown that people in the two constituencies are willing to give up their rigid stance and accept compensation in lieu of giving up their land for the industry.

But if we take the number of votes polled for or against the TMC as a metric to determine whether Singur or Nandigram still firmly backs Mamata Banerjee, it shows a contrasting picture. While in the Singur assembly segment, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, TMC candidates trailed its BJP counterpart by 10,000 votes, in Nandigram TMC’s Dibyendu Adhikari, led his nearest rival from BJP by almost 70,000 votes. Dibyendu’s brother, Suvendu Adhikari, is now contesting for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against Mamata Banerjee.

Ironically, in Singur, the BJP, the Left-Congress alliance and even a section of TMC is speaking about industrialization. It’s now a broad consensus that people in Singur have suffered since Tata's partially built factory had rendered the land, which has been returned to them as unfit for agriculture. But, Nandigram, where the then Left government had failed to acquire land, only the BJP and the Congress-Left-ISF alliance is promising to usher in industrialization, while, Mamata Banerjee has promised development.

And it is on this issue that Mamata Banerjee and her party may not be in the same boat with a sizeable section of the locals. Undone by the hardship of COVID-19, several local people are now willing to part with their land in lieu of a proper compensation—a far cry from 2007.

Though, the chief minister might just sail through in Nandigram, Singur looks difficult for the ruling party. And if the BJP or even the Left-Congress-ISF alliance manages to trounce Didi and form a government, it will make every effort to bring back industries to Singur and Nandigram.
And once Singur and Nandigram see a peaceful acquisition of agriculture land for industrial purposes, other state governments and even the Centre will have the required political capital to bring in a new land acquisition Bill that would make it easy to acquire land for the industry.

Plaban Gupta is the Assistant Editor at TV18 Broadcast Ltd.