The Rape of Singur

The village of Singur, and subsequently Nandigram, in West Bengal recently witnessed a level of solidarity and civil activism rarely seen since India's struggle for independence. In fact, what set this movement apart was that thousands of protesters, ranging from local farmers to grassroots activists, assembled to oppose an elected government's decision to acquire 997 acres of prime agricultural land for industrial use by invoking an antiquated British Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

It is customary for the chattering classes to dismiss these conflicts as rites of passage on the road to development, and for politicians to point to the wealthy west's successful transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Indeed, while the government's brutal might ultimately prevailed in Singur, the skirmish raises uncomfortable talking points about a nation's right to dispossess peasants of their livelihood in the name of industrial progress. What is also overlooked is that the great powers of the nineteenth century could afford to subsidise their industrial development through colonial spoils from overseas, a luxury that developing countries today do not possess (with the possible exception of oil-rich nations).

The state government has since claimed that consent had been received to acquire 960 acres of the agricultural land from their respective owners (predominantly absentee landlords and share-croppers), and it was its prerogative to use the land as it saw fit (in this case, hand it over to Tata Motors at a massive public subsidy). However, this begs a couple of questions: can a government be absolved of responsibility as long as the majority is appeased, and should society disregard the plight of a powerless minority who lose not only their ancestral land, but their very way of living? Rather disappointingly, Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen took the establishment's stand that trickle-down economics would benefit all parties.

The controversy also saw a fall from grace of the legendary Tata Group, who rejected five other non-arable plots of land offered by the government (including one in Kharagpur, home to the oldest Indian Institute of Technology, and located between Calcutta and Tata's headquarters in Jamshedpur), before selecting the fertile agricultural tract of Singur because of its existing infrastructure (water, roads, etc.). Through this act, the company finally cast off all pretences to owning a socialist conscience, and their long-standing tradition of participating in, and even catalysing, the nation's progress. Other private corporations also silently lauded the government's hollow victory over democracy as a precedent for more illegal land acquisitions for "special economic zones".

While policy-makers prepare to auction off the country for narrow political profits, every responsible citizen should ask themselves if a nation really benefits if she gains the whole world of commerce, but loses her soul.

When the organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity.

Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism in the West

No comments: