A year has passed since the violent repression against farmers protesting acquisition of their land in Nandigram. The issues that led to that outburst are yet to be resolved. The problem is not restricted to West Bengal alone, but confronts India at large.
The episode brought back attention to the neglected issue of property rights in India. After whittling down the constitutional protections to private property, citizens had wearily accepted that government could acquire or take away property. The importance of Nandigram lies in making the issue politically relevant once again, even if life had been snuffed out of such rights legally. No politician who wants to get re-elected will touch the issue. The episode of not letting special economic zones (SEZ) go ahead in Goa is a pointer.
It was not a mere accident that a confrontation over rights took place in communist-ruled West Bengal. An ideology that holds that the state can do no wrong and the frantic rush to attract investment were bound to result in a political collision with the people. One can only look at chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s efforts at industrialization with sympathy. His problem was to venture ahead without resolving some basic questions. What are the limits to incentives that cash-starved states should offer to industrial investors? What will happen in a dog-eat-dog competition between states to woo investors? How does one draw a line between public and private interest?
None of these questions has a simple, straightforward answer. For example, land acquired for industrialization will ultimately benefit citizens by providing jobs and revenue for governments. But this involves the violation of property rights of some people whose land is taken away. There is no clear resolution in favour of one step or the other.
Perhaps, this is an opportune moment to bring back the right to property as a fundamental right. Maybe this is not easy in light of the constitutional developments since independence. In any case, undoing the effects of successive constitutional amendments that ate into the vitals of this precious right is likely to open a can of worms. But post-Nandigram, there is a strong case for it.
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