Kolkata: For over three decades, India’s West Bengal state has been run by the world’s longest-serving democratically-elected communist government.
Yet the communist’s power base is slowly being eroded by farmers alienated by aggressive plans to attract foreign and local industry to regain the economic glory days when this region was one of the nerve centres of the British empire.
Across Kolkata, a city of 12 million and for years a symbol of India’s deep urban poverty, posters and banners bearing the traditional communist red hammer and sickle symbols promise new industries and jobs to the younger generation.
These businesses have often taken shape on prime farmland, enraging farmers, the leftists traditional supporters, who have launched violent protests against factory projects, including a plant to produce the world’s cheapest car, the Nano.
“The left has a compulsion to go ahead with industry, and knows very well they might have to pay a price for it in this election,” said Ashis Chakrabarti, senior editor of The Telegraph newspaper, referring to a national election to be finalised this month. Meanwhile, West Bengal’s communist government may face trouble in a 2011 state poll.
The conflict between industrialisation and agriculture in West Bengal reflects a wider battle in India, where efforts to modernise in this densely populated country have often met with violent backlashes from villagers who make up more than half of India’s 1.1 billion plus population.
Much of West Bengal’s industries, mainly jute, textile and heavy engineering, started during the pre-independence period when Kolkata was the capital of British India.
Industrialisation continued till the mid-1970s, but when the left took over the state in 1977 with promises of empowering farmers, they gave away land to more than 2.5 million peasants in the country’s most sweeping distribution programme.
Industrialisation came to a halt, while factories started to get heavily unionised, and by the mid 1980s, labour unrest and strikes shut down 35,000 factories and workshops.
Other Indian states such as Orissa and Bangalore were successfully wooing investors by then, while big corporations fled West Bengal.
With agriculture stagnating, land short and unemployment growing, the communists started to change tack five years ago to woo investors as part of India’s new “Look East Policy” and forge closer trade with the rest of Asia.
Yet these efforts infuriated farmers who have violently protested against factories such as a $3 billion chemicals hub complex in Nandigram which was eventually abandoned.
Tata Motors last year shifted their plans to build the Nano following protests by farmers.
“Governments have done a mess of their industrialisation drive in India, and the West Bengal state in particular, who have used strong arm-tactics to acquire land for industry,” said Amulya Ganguli, a political analyst.
Steel and chemicals hub
Some lessons may have been learnt.
The West Bengal government is enticing investors by offering big tax cuts. It has simplified the approval process for setting up industries and is now acquiring non-agriculture or low-yield land for industry rather than fertile soils like in Nandigram.
One such project showcased by the left this election is a 10 million tonne steel plant, being built by India’s JSW Steel for $7 million.
Another company, Bhushan Steel, is also setting up a 2-million tonne steel plant in the state. The world’s largest steel producer ArcelorMittal has approached the communist government for land in the state to set up offices.
The government is planning an IT hub with companies such as Wipro and Infosys at an estimated cost of $1 billion over the next five years. The communist government has banned strikes in the sector.
Chinese firms such as car manufacturer FAW Corporation, and Taiwan companies are talking to the government to set up food processing, medical equipment and textiles manufacturers.
“We will have to go with industry and bring investors, it is the only way forward and it is the way to the future,” Nirupam Sen, the industries minister said.
At the same time, opposition parties are winning support from farmers who feel abandoned by the leftists.
Standing to make big gains in the national election is the Trinamul Congress, the state’s main opposition party and a supporter of the incumbent Congress party which is seeking to lead India for another 5 years.
“This election is a big test for the communists,” said Abhirup Sarkar, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute.
In meetings ahead of the national election, leftist leaders are explaining to voters how industry will improve lives.
But many villagers are suspicious.
“We were better off when we had our farms. Now we buy vegetables from another farm and sell it in the market to survive, or we will go hungry,” Rabia Bibi, a 40-year-old woman said in Singur, where Tata first planned their car factory.