The Singur issue is one of the most hotly debated political, economic and ethical issues that have ever crept up in West Bengal. With many hands stirring the soup, large number of vested interests, this issue has caught the public attention in an unexpected fashion.
I would be giving a vivid analysis of the integrated set of various reasons which led to the widespread turmoil and tumult due to the implementation of the expensive project by the Tatas. Ultimately the project was a failure. As a researcher I will highlight the various loopholes in the contract and lack of negotiation between various parties. It will try to unravel the complex issues of corruption and the legal ambiguity which the Tatas undertook to confuse the legal picture while trying to define the nature of their project.
The moot question that comes up is- who is responsible? Given the complexity of the situation, no single party can be blamed completely. The arguments below seek to unravel some of the un-discussed but undeniable reasons for the failure of this project-
- It is the lack of ground presence and high-handedness of the government which ultimately jeopardized the NANO project of the Tatas and made the socio-political and economic scenario highly complex.
- There was total lack of transparency on the part of the government. The government worked in an injudicious manner and did not do adequate research before implementing the project.
- The government did not include sub-contractors within the ambit of compensation due to vested interests.
- There was also duality on the part of the TATAs.
The above mentioned arguments will be dealt more elaborately under the following heads:
Lack of ground presence and extensive planning:
One of the most essential aspects of any sort of developmental job undertaken by the government is transparency. Any government which starts being autocratic is bound to suffer in almost all its endeavors even if they are good ones. Public sentiment is one which resembles a storm. It can only grow bigger and dies down in its own time.
The ruling Left Front government made this very mistake. Let us diagnose the error in detail:
- More than 60% of the farmers just knew two things i.e. their land is going to be taken away and a factory is going to come up in its place, implying that they would die of hunger and abject poverty.
- There was practically no role played by the local panchayat to educate the locals about industrialization and its utilities.
- There were hardly any presence of political workers who would take trouble of explaining to the farmers the pros and cons of giving up land for industrial benefits and which would help them in turn.
- Extreme red-tapism and high levels of lethargy in the state bureaucracy created a huge gap between the farmers and the planning department for the Singur project. According to some reports the government officials also committed crime in dealing with the agitated localites of Singur. Speaking to the Statesman about convicted IPS officer Mr. Asit Paul, eminent writer and Magsaysay award winner, Mahasweta Devi said, “He has tortured farmers, assaulted women mercilessly.” Mr Paul had assaulted women farmers and Ms Anirudha Talwar, a human rights activist near the Singur factory for protesting against land acquisition.
- Most farmers being illiterate refused to sign documents that they did not understand. The bureaucracy forced them to sign it. They did so grudgingly and hence a large amount of discontent was initiated in the general public sentiment.
- The opposition made use of this huge gulf between the government and the people and extracted maximum political mileage out of it.
- The procedure under the Land Acquisition Act 1894 was not followed fully and fairly.
- The compensation was only monetary and no state level rehabilitation policy was ordered.
The above arguments all point to one factor: Lack of planning. The high handedness of the government proved to be the nemesis of this project even though the project would have actually proven to be a gem in the Left Front government’s industrial initiative. It is but imperative that every major change is accompanied with resistance. To counter or placate this resistance requires extensive planning down to the grain. This was entirely missing.
While the compensation paid to the farmers was generous, the government did not in any way try to create a sustainable model (micro-financing etc) around which the dispossessed farmers could earn their livelihood. The TATAs said that they will be trained and recruited as daily workers. This did not give much comfort to the farmers since they signed no such document guaranteeing such an understanding. It was only word of mouth that spread from media discussions.
While the business minded immediately invested their newly earned money in banks and partially in starting a new business primarily of supplying construction material to the factory, the sub contracting farmers were not able to do that. This is primarily because the government did not do any ground research before planning and implementation, because if they had done so then they would understand the complex third party Barga system that is followed in Singur and most of West Bengal where the fragmented farming is the general norm. The government practically did nothing to actually make sure that the sub contractor farmers got compensation which now points to the issue i.e. corruption.
The issues of corruption by the TATAs and the government
The angle of corruption is undeniable and quite much possible. A few simple questions will prove the point:
1. Why did the state government not care to include the sub contractors in the ambit of compensation?
Lack of knowledge is not admissible since this government has been in the picture for more than 30 years in West Bengal. Ideally they should possess the best knowledge of the Barga system of fragmented farming in West Bengal. Till the 1928 amendment of the Bengal Tenancy Act 1885 the bargardars were formally denied to any kind of legal rights over the lands. Operation Barga was a Land Reform movement throughout rural West Bengal which bestowed on the bargardars (sharecroppers) the legal protection against eviction by the landlords, and entitled them to the due share of the produce. Operation Barga was launched in 1978 and concluded by the mid 80’s.The ultimate aim of it was to facilitate the conversion of the state’s bargardars into landowners, in line with the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution(Art 34). Inspite of this they chose to ignore the sub contractors when dolling out the compensation. The main question is why?
The answer can be extremely simple. The government wanted the land. They were ready to pay generous amounts for it. But they did not have any constructive re-employment plan ready. Also they were running short of time and they had to improve the picture of West Bengal as an investment friendly state which had taken a beating lately. So the fastest possible approach would be to pay the owner of the substantial quantities of land without paying any to the sub contractors. This would be easy since it is easier to convince the landowners than the sub contractors. Also it will have the picture of clear legality. However, what one might fail to notice is how exactly is the government might have imagined managing such a hopeless inadequate plan and getting away with it? The answer to that will be corruption. They paid extra to each landowner who would promise hassle free land transfer. Also the government would use political clout to obtain lucrative business deals with the landowners and factory construction contractors. The business deal could be anything ranging from supplying construction material to providing transport.
2. The TATAs are repeatedly attempting to confuse the legal picture while trying to define the nature of their project.Why?
The TATA factory is essentially a private endeavor. However, they are repeatedly oscillating in court and sometimes name their project as public and sometimes as private. Such duality gives development a bad name. This lack of clear definition from a company like TATA points to the vested interests that it holds in the project. The Calcutta High Court had passed an interim, two-week stay on an order by the West Bengal information commissioner, asking the state government to make public the agreement on the Nano project between the government, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIC) and Tata Motors.
Parts of the agreement are already available for public viewing on the state industrial body’s website. But a right to information activist Amitava Chaudhary (leader of the opposition in the state assembly) asked for the entire details of the agreement, including certain annexure, to be made public and filed petitions before the state information commission.Tata Motors argued in court that the agreement between the 3 parties was a trade secret and hence should not be revealed in its entirety.
The implicit assumption here is that the deal between Tata Motors and West Bengal involves a private commercial project.
The interests could range from massive tax sops from the state government started taking over the land by stating public good as the legal justification. So naturally they asked TATA to define their project as a public project. Once the people revolted, the TATA started backing out to Sanand and immediately termed their project as private. The reason behind this oscillation is fairly clear.
While Maruti takes around 300 acres to produce more than 3 lakh cars,the TATAs need more than 900 acres to produce 1 lakh cars? The factory of Maruti at Gurgaon is spread over 300 acres.It is hard to believe that TATA company has such low operational efficiency. This leads us to the question that what exactly are the TATAs and the government planning with all that extra land. It is entirely possible that the TATAs would later renounce that land as not needed and the government would auction that. The TATAs would then re-purchase the same land for a much cheaper auction rate and use it for subsidiary factories and hence make substantial profits on the fly.
 http://sanhati.com/articles/687/(last visited,Feb 8th2011)
 Dharma Kumar,Tapan Raychaudhuri and Meghnad Desai,The Cambridge Economic History Of India,(Cambridge University Press,1983)p.161
 Tim Hanstad& Robin Nielsen, West Bengal’s Bargadars and Landownership
 TATA Motors moves High Court on Singur land allotment,THE HINDU,December 3,1990
 High Court asks petitioners to move info panel for details on NANO deal,INDIAN EXPRESS,February 5,2010
 http://www.livemint.com/2008/09/14215308/Confusing-the-Singur-issue.html# (last visited,Feb 8th 2011)
 http://www.marutisuzuki.com/facilities.aspx(last visited,Feb 9th 2011)
Image courtesy- www.theindiastreet.com
Article by- Saurav Bhaumik,
Student, National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.