Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Singur: it makes sense for Tatas to return the land

Today, the Supreme Court of India asked Tatas Motors - one of the largest industrial groups in India to consider returning the land to farmers in Singur.This isn't a verdict; the Company gets the time to tell the court what it intends to do with the land acquired years ago for setting up a car factory, until of course all hell broke loose.

The news took me back years ago, bringing alive so many memories! I was at my first job in this TV station - a fresh face in journalism, itching to report . One day I  found in my email an e-petition that said, the government of West Bengal had taken from farmers a very large stretch of very fertile land and leased it to the Tatas for setting up a car factory. The total land was 997 acres. Put together, that is 2 square km of high-yielding rice producing land.

The email was a shocker for me for so many reasons. First, I always believe that a "communist" govt in India was far better than other parties. They states they ruled (West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura) had higher literacy rates, had little religious/caste-based violence and above all, women were more respected there.

Of course, none of this is true:  and I was young and naive. But it was the email on Singur that woke me up from my slumber. My wake up thought was "how can a communist govt, which prides itself in calling  pro-poor, give away so much land that was productive and fed so many mouths? 

((My brother in Law gave me an answer: the Communists in India have been always known for being anti-Industrialization and of late it was pinching them badly. In the '90s they set up a one-window approval system called 'Shilpa Bandhu' (Friend of Industry) where anyone willing to invest in the state could get all he could - land, power, license- without  running to multiple departments. It's probably during this Shilpa Bandhu regime that the Tatas first approached the govt. And it was this despair - to get a new image makeover that pushed the communists to say 'aye', said my brother in law relative who actually worked in the senior management level in Shilpa Bandhu for a few years.)

In the next few months, things happened rather fast: protests by farmers, civil society and some political parties against the land acquisition in Singur gained a momentum and violence erupted. The TV station I worked for had a channel in Bengali  and it now had a permanent section of the bulletin dedicated to Singur which was all about how many people clashed, how many rounds of tear gas the police fired and how many were injured.

And then in 2008, I heard Ratan Tata - the then chief of the Tata group announcing that his company was pulling out of Singur.

The Tatas went to Gujarat where they were welcome. Those who supported the Tatas used sarcasm to say, West Bengal failed use the opportunity to be in the global picture, Gujarat just grabbed it.

 In 2010 visited Sanand for a media training workshop and saw the Nano car factory site. It was dry land with little greenery, little vegetation, in sharp contrast to the landscape of Singur. I visited a few villages in the district and they were mostly small and marginal farmers who migrated en mass every year to cities to find work. I think the factory can actually be a boon to them, providing them job opportunities.

Now, this is the real truimph of Gujarat:  offering land that has little agricultural productivity to industry. And this is why Gujarat and its leaders should be praised: they know how to select their land, unlike the leaders in West Bengal who were plain stupid and arrogant because they had been in power for 20 years and thought they could get away with everything. Of course they were wrong: in the next state election, they were booted out of power which, I am sure, has given them a chance to introspect.

Now, that was four years ago. This is 2013. The Tatas have been running their business pretty well. The Nano car - cheapest car in India is selling well too.  But, in Singur, the 997 acres of land, are just lying untouched.

What a sad thing this is for a country where 63% of the population is officially lacks food security and where the government is adopting all kind of populist measures like selling rice at 1 rupees a kg to feed them all.

Two days ago, I was on field, doing a story on crop failure and rural migration. During my work, I met this very senior government official who told me "in India, agriculture is also about dignity and social security. Here a  farmer is respected only when he owns land."

The farmers of Singur are now landless. Do they deserve the indignity and insecurity that come with that?

But, dignity and security apart, agriculture also means money. If you don't believe that, look at the multinational agro-companies who are pumping millions into their business! 

The land that the Tatas got in Singur wasn't bought. It was leased to them for 90 years. It is not yet known what they want to do with it now. It's also not clear whether they can actually do anything else with this since it was leased to them for a particular reason: setting up a car factory.

The Supreme Court also hasn't given a verdict, but here is what I really feel: they should just pay heed to the court and return the land to the farmers - before more farming seasons are lost - so they can cultivate it again.

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