A clash between police, ruling party members and villagers in Nandigram, 160km from Kolkata, has sparked violence leaving several people dead and many more injured. State-run buses were being burnt in Kolkata, and rail tracks and roads blocked, as a spill-over of the protests over unfair acquisition of land by the government for industrial projects in West Bengal’s villages.
The official estimates are that six people have been killed and 20 injured. But unofficial sources say the toll is much higher (about 14 dead) and likely to rise further. This is a second round of clash between the police and the villagers at Nandigram. The earlier incident on 7 January left six people dead.
The State now faces a bandh or general strike called by the opposition parties on Friday. At the eye of this storm is a land-acquisition programme for building a chemical hub that could be designated as Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region or a special economic zone. Wednesday’s violence comes as a shock, particularly against the backdrop of both the CPI(M) leadership and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee assuring that all land acquisitions for SEZ projects in the state will be put on hold until it is able to convince people to part with their land.
Officials in the government, who did not wish to be named, said the forced police entry was necessitated by the stray incidents of violence reported from Nandigram.
Buddhadeb has said that he will give his statement on the issue on the floor of the state assembly. Home minister Shivraj Patil said 20,000 people had collected at two locations in Nandigram, and the police had entered the area to allow some construction work to continue, which led to stone-throwing by this mob.
”The SEZ project has been called off,” reminded CPI(M) Politburo member Sitaram Yechury. ”West Bengal chief minister has said categorically that no land will be acquired if landowners don’t want to part with it. This is something completely different; it is political violence, instigated by armed gangs supported by the opposition.’’
Wednesday’s episode has raised questions about how earnest is the State Government about its promise to stop forceful acquisitions. It has angered not only the Opposition but also CPI(M) partners in the State’s Left Front Government. “The kind of police action at Nandigram is unheard of in Left rule, which I condemn severely,” said A B Bardhan, General Secretary, CPI.
Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee, of Trinamool Congress, has called for a 12-hour general strike on Friday. Congress and the lesser known SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India) are also joining in on this call. This will affect the education system with the Higher Secondary Board Exams that were to kick off on Friday, being pushed to a later date. “If the party’s voice was ignored in the Left Front, we also have the right to think in our own way,” said Kshiti Goswami, State PWD Minister and senior RSP leader.
The CPI(M) government in West Bengal was caught on the wrong foot in Nandigram in January. Coupled with Singur, the site of the Tatas’ Rs1 lakh-car project which is not a SEZ, Nandigram has forced the Centre to rethink its SEZ policy. The Union Government has been reworking such policies to address the land acquisition issues better. Union Ministers have indicated that one advice the new policies are likely to impart is for State Governments to steer clear of the land acquisition and leave it to the investors.
However, in the race to attract investments, this advice may not be heeded by the State Governments, say project consultants. Nandigram’s project is expected to stretch over 250 kms covering 25,000 hectares of land, according to the national policy. The State Government has sought to acquire 22,000 acres of land at Nandigram initially.
With Wednesday’s violence, the rift between the Congress and the CPI(M) is only set to grow, as the state unit of the Congress was quick to demand imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal. The central leadership of the Congress, however, refrained from making this demand.
Pragya Singh, Ashish Sharma and PTI contributed to this story.