The Singur controversy has attracted a strange set of bedfellows-the Tatas and the Left Government on one side representing the so-called “capitalists” and Mamta, BJP, Medha Patkar on the other representing “people’s interests”. Politically, the Rajas and Yechurys are conveniently silent and the entire issue has become Buddha’s lone fight. It's best to ignore Mamta madam’s theatrical outbursts and so I am keeping aside the politics involved here, though the clincher in the deal may be politics.
Singur is a village about 50 km northwest of Kolkata and is predominantly an agricultural area. The Tatas want to set up their small car unit here and have estimated about 997 acres of land for this. 950 acres has already been agreed and the remaining 47 acres is still being negotiated, but we know what the result would be. The compensation agreement entails owners of single-crop land to receive Rs 8.4 lakh per acre and Rs 12 lakh an acre if the land was used for double-cropping.
The issues involved, broadly, as I understand are:
1.Agricultural land for industrialization:
Most of the land acquired for the purpose of setting up the land is agricultural and fertile land. A pro-Left article claims that this is because of paucity of non-agricultural land at West Bengal. But Bengal accounts for only 3.8% of the total agricultural land in India, so that argument does not cut ice. Even if it is so, why are the Tatas insisting on acquiring this land? For a company known for its CSR, this seems like an aberration unless they take pains to explain their decision. Is the locational advantage so tremendous that the company has to set up base there or is it because of the sops being offered by the West Bengal Government?
2.Total Land Area Required:
If a Maruti Udyog with an installed capacity of 3.5 lakh cars a year requires a total land area of 300 acres, do the Tatas require three times that much land for producing only one lakh cars? Maybe they do but then shouldn’t they be transparent about it and tell the farmers and the public what they wish to do with this land? Surely, their PRO can do a better job about this rather than maintaining a dogged stance on this aspect and insisting on going ahead with the same plans.
There seems to be a fairly good consensus that the compensation package paid by the Government is more than adequate and more than 94% of the land owners have agreed to sell of the land because of this. But then, it’s not just the land owners who are involved here. After the land reforms instituted here under Operation Barga, most of the land rests in the hands of land owners while the revenue/produce is shared between the land owners and the share croppers (who get the land cultivated). There are also the farmers who do the actual tilling on the land and work as daily wage earners – all this makes it a more elaborate sub-contracting set-up among owners, croppers and workers. It needs to be ensured that all the three concerned parties are compensated for this sale adequately and not just the land owners.
4.Employment opportunities for the displaced:
As mentioned earlier, there are several daily wage workers who would lose out when this land goes to corporates. This loss of livelihood may have to be compensated by the company in terms of employing them in the company or elsewhere and would again require them to train the workers in other skills. The Tatas reportedly plan to train workers for this but past records of most land acquisitions do not give us much of a comfort. We do not have a system to evaluate the effectiveness of the compensation provided and the aftermath of such acquisitions. There have been cases where the displaced receive monetary compensation but their future remains uncertain due to lack of investment knowledge and absence of any other skill sets.
Currently, agricultural land in India cannot be sold for non-agricultural purposes, so such sales happen only when the government comes into the picture by a back door approach of acquiring land from rural areas and selling it to corporates. But should they involve themselves in such transactions only for public utilities like roads, flyovers etc. or should they do this even for sale to private individuals? There may be people who do not wish to sell the space but are forced to do so because the Government thinks it is for the “greater good”.
Do we give farmers the right to sell their land to anyone they wish to? Since right to Property is not a Fundamental right (it was removed under the 44th amendment Act in 1978 by the Janata Party), it becomes an arbitrary call by the government. This naturally depresses the land prices due to lack of buyers and becomes a liability for farmers who want to move out of agriculture. The very idea of this law was to prevent reduction of agricultural land and acquisition of land by loan-sharks and corporates.
However, freeing land sales may also lead to the land going back to the hands of money lenders and zamindars – again a reversal of the process of democratization of land. Moreover, we cannot reduce the worker’s dependence on agriculture suddenly without adequately training him otherwise. And if you train him, will he be gainfully employed?
At a more macro-level, there’s a school of thought which believes that since agricultural productivity is low, the land should be utilized where it gives the best revenue. An argument for effective utilization of resources but I’m not too sure about this approach. A blogger has accused the middle class of romanticizing the notion of rural agriculture when it is totally a loss making concept.
Is agriculture a viable option, especially, considering the dependence of farmers on so many extraneous factors in agriculture like monsoon, price fluctuations, seed quality etc? With stagnant agricultural growth and lack of governmental interest (except in WTO forums and election manifestos), we may require providing farmers with this freedom to sell so that farmlands are easily disposable. This ease of disposal also brings in more buyers and increases the land rates.
However, any such decision must also take into account the social and environmental fallout of rapid and massive industrialization. Somewhere, we need to take a middle path between environmental and economic considerations. We cannot look at either of them in isolation and the challenge is to marry the two interests such that any “collateral damage” is limited. Future wars may be fought on energy and food security, as the Iraqi wars and African conflicts show and we need to be ready for that.