Kolkata: Stung by protests related to acquisition of land in Singur and Nandigram, the West Bengal government is looking to revamp its resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policy for people likely to be displaced by industrial projects and will hire educational institutions to carry out studies on the socio-economic conditions of these people.
Landlocked: A deserted stretch of road near Ranichowk village, 10km west of Nandigram. Last November, many villagers had to flee their homes as warring groups of Communist Party of India (M) cadre and Trinamool-led Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee fought pitched battles on land acquisition issues.
“Each project will be studied separately, and based on the findings, the state will decide the compensation package for the people, affected by the project,” said Sabyasachi Sen, the state’s commerce and industries secretary.
The studies will be carried out before any land is acquired, and be carried out by institutions such as Calcutta University, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and Jadavpur University.
The state has also asked potential investors to offer a combination of immediate and long-term incentives to displaced farmers.
“It could be anything— shares, annuity, long-term employment, or a combination of these. Companies can decide what they want to offer, but the aim is to include displaced farmers in the long-term growth that happens because of the investment,” Sen added.
The government has decided to ask companies to look at the possible long-term incentives they can offer after the Sajjan Jindal-controlled JSW Steel Ltd, offered annuity, employment, and even equity shares in its steel plant in Bengal to farmers displaced by the project. The company acquired land directly from farmers at market price, and did not face resistance.
In the past one year, around 12 steel manufacturers have entered into an agreement with the West Bengal government to set up steel plants in the state. The government, which has committed to provide land for all these projects has decided to do so only after conducting socio-economic surveys of people who will be displaced in each instance.
The government’s decision may have to do with the violent protests it faced in Singur, where land was being acquired for a Tata Motors Ltd project to build the Tata Nano, and Nandigram, where a petrochemical hub was being planned. While the Tata Motors plant at Singur is under construction, the government was forced to give up its plans for Nandigram and relocate the petrochemical hub in an uninhabited sand-bar called Nayachar.
Experts who have advised the government on its surveys, say the state government finally seems to have learnt a lesson from the events at Singur and Nandigram.
“Earlier on, investors would indicate which plot they wanted and the government would oblige. But now there seems to be a change in mindset to the extent that farmers are no longer taken for granted,” said Abhirup Sarkar, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute.
Sarkar has sat in on a few meetings with the government as the contours of the socio-economic survey evolve.
In the past, said Kalyan Sanyal, a professor of economics at Calcutta University, the state has paid dearly for its inability to manage land acquisition. “Acquisition of land is a delicate issue and can’t be left to the administration. Political, social and cultural factors have to be reckoned with. If only the government had thought about an imaginative and compassionate R&R policy earlier, bloodshed could have been avoided,” he added.
Importance of agriculture
Although agriculture accounts for just 26% of West Bengal’s economy, it provides livelihood to two out of three in this state of 83 million. Land is scarce — only 63% is arable — but because 96% of farmland is irrigated, productivity is quite high.
Beginning 1977, when the Left Front came to power, the state government has worked towards empowering poor and marginal farmers. Through successful and successive land reform programmes, the government has managed to ensure that 83% of arable land is in the hands of small and marginal farmers. To date, over 1.3 million acres of land has been distributed among three million poor and landless farmers. West Bengal also recognizes tenancy rights and there are over 1.5 million registered sharecroppers in the state.
However, events at Singur and Nandigram have alienated many farmers and the state government is counting on these studies to help, but Sarkar isn’t convinced on that score. He is also not going to be involved in the exercise.
“We have a manpower problem at ISI. But more importantly, I am not sure enough homework has gone into deciding the questions. The questions were decided hurriedly through a couple of meetings with academicians. I think the government is up against a stiff deadline, and is trying to find a quick fix,” Sarkar added.
However, Sarkar is impressed with the fact that the government has engaged educational institutions and not ‘Left sympathizers’ to conduct the study. “It could have, but has chosen not to. So you could expect the findings to be unbiased, which, I think, is a very good thing,” he said.
Such surveys will become part of the detailed project report investors normally prepare ahead of committing cash to a project. The West Bengal government normally allows a year or so to prepare the entire report, and academicians say researchers are unlikely to get more than a few months to submit their findings.
Apart from a stiff deadline, researchers will also be hampered by unavailability of data.
“The biggest difficulty that researchers are likely to encounter is the lack of credible data on agricultural income. People typically try to conceal how much they earn. There are ways to correct under- and over-reporting (of income), but I suspect in this case, researchers might not be given enough time to do that exercise meticulously,” Sarkar said.