The events at Singur are no longer about property rights of farmers and other marginal groups. They are more about political blackmail and hold-up of projects for reasons other than compensation and justice.
Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee’s rally at Singur on Sunday conveyed this impression more than that of farmers being forcibly evicted from their lands. That she was accompanied by Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, who habitually opposes any project that involves any land, reinforced this impression. As reported in Mint on Monday, many farmers were ready to give up their land if compensation were to be enhanced. They cowed under political pressure and fear of violence against them.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
If anything, this clearly exhibits the cruel conundrum of development in India. It has largely benefited the more well-off citizens and has bypassed large swathes of the country. As a result, the poor hold on to assets, mostly small patches of land, with their lives. This, even if these assets are able to generate little or no income and basically force their owners to live a subsistence existence.
Attempts to break this pattern are anything but easy. In such a situation, if any attempts are made to put this land to productive use, for example by industrialization, it meets resistance. Even in this miserable situation, politicians sense an opportunity and move in to kill any attempts at economic makeover. Leftists and other anti-developmental activists (mostly fashionable writers such as Arundhati Roy) then join the bandwagon. Singur is a very good example. In the process farmers have gained higher compensation: But beyond that their long-term interests, in the form of employment, business opportunities, etc., are being marred.
The danger here is that Indian democracy allows such hold-ups to be replicated at little or no cost. On the one hand, the gestation period for the benefits to accrue to those who have to part with land is long; on the other hand, it takes little time to make a political killing. If the poor acquiesce and participate in the process, it is because they have little to lose if development does not take place: They can continue to eke out a living.
This is an illusion. There are real losses. For example, in 1980-81 West Bengal had a per capita state domestic product of Rs1,773. States such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka hovered around the same figure. By 2004-05, they had nudged past West Bengal. Three decades of such politics cost the state dear. Now, when past mistakes are being rectified, the political pattern does not permit an easy change.
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