West Bengal is revising its social contract

The situation in Singur and Alisha, Burdwan, show that those who willingly sold their land to the state govt for development projects now want it back


West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The Supreme Court’s Singur verdict invalidating land acquired by the West Bengal government for a Tata Motors factory in 2006 and its order to return the 997 acres has had an unexpected effect. Across West Bengal, farmers in particular and former landholders in general have interpreted the apex court verdict as a signal to walk away from land sales effected with their consent and projects promoted by the popular and farmer-friendly government of chief minister Mamata Banerjee (who had, in fact, celebrated the Singur verdict as a vindication of her political battle for ma-mati-manush, the slogan that propelled her to power in 2011).

Take, for instance, the land acquisition in Raghunathpur, Purulia. Here, about 3,000 acres of land purchased mostly from farmers in a textbook acquisition process by the government for raising an industrial hub has now been reclaimed by its past owners. In New Town-Rajarhat, a suburb of the state capital and West Bengal’s millennium city, a site of contested acquisition, previous land owners are demanding that their land be returned or they be allocated five kottahs inside the urban area.

Similarly, in Alisha, Burdwan, in south Bengal’s most prosperous district, small plot owners have rescinded an agreement and cancelled the sale of 10.5 acres of land, compelling the West Bengal government to hastily call off a project that was the chief minister’s pet idea for boosting the local economy.

If Singur was a mega development project, Alisha was a micro project for setting up a tiny manufacturing hub for mishti, Bengal’s famous sweet creations. While Singur triggered a political implosion, in Alisha, the government avoided a potentially explosive political situation by walking away from the project.

This series of repudiations marks a seismic shift in the role of government. By overturning the authority of the state and the power of a government, the rural land holder is calling benign but supervised land sales an uncertain gamble because the promised future benefits may not come through, signalling that these are, for the farmers at least, cases of market failure. For new industrial ventures, this is a sharp rise in the risk of investing in West Bengal.

What the West Bengal small plot owners are saying is that the government cannot decide what will be of value for the general good or the greater good. Consequently, plans like fencing the border with Bangladesh for which 2,000 acres of land is required have been cast aside. Roads and other infrastructure, including power projects, have been put on hold.

The message is clear: The role of government should be limited. It should be restricted to doing just those few things for the poor or economically stressed, that the market cannot satisfactorily do—like ensuring food security, providing rural employment, health care, education, affordable housing, subsidized electricity, roads, waste management, policing and protection against an external enemy.

In essence, the demand for re-possession is the landowners/affected people’s way of correcting market failure. This then leads to the question: is it time to start re-imagining the ignorant and backdated peasant stereotype? Armed with a smartphone, the small plot owner or farmer in West Bengal has access to market information and feels confident enough to take decisions without the guidance of the government. Faith in state-sponsored plans for mega industrial projects as an economic revival strategy seems to have plummeted. And youth migration to other parts of India and the world, for unskilled to highly skilled work, seems to have changed earlier models of dependence on the government.

This is a giant step by West Bengal’s rural land owners who are making clear their scepticism for humane, participative, informed and transparent governance. They are signalling that they are better off controlling or owning their own assets rather than selling it to the state so as to further projects dreamed up by the political leadership supposedly in the “people’s interest”.

This overturns all previous ideas about the relationship between the state and citizen, and indeed the history of the politics of governance in West Bengal. Parental-style supervision, down to the details of domestic affairs, has been the model up until now, with the Trinamool Congress expanding the role even as it criticized the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for meddling in private matters.

Under the Trinamool Congress, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, for example, offered house owners a hefty property tax rebate if they painted their buildings in the party’s prescribed colours—blue and white. The party expected the public would seize the chance to pay lower taxes. But that did not happen.

The freedom to decide seems to be the message from the grass roots. Alisha annulled a model of government and governance. It reveals the ordinary, average Bengali’s distrust in the government, even if this has not yet acquired the scale of the anxieties, fear and rage of the voters who voted Donald Trump in as the new US president.

Alisha and other places have thrown up a very complex set of questions and challenges to the political leadership, cutting across party identities. And for this, nobody is prepared.

Shikha Mukerjee is a journalist based in West Bengal.

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