02 Sep 2016 21:28 IST

Singur, ten years after

What if the Left Front government had focused on small industries instead of capital-intensive majors?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday quashed the erstwhile Left Front government’s land acquisition of 997 acres in Singur, West Bengal, for Tata Motors’ Nano plant. It also ordered that the land be returned to the owners.

Though the Supreme Court said that it was “completely understandable” for the government to acquire land to set up industries, it stressed that the “brunt of development” must not fall on the “weakest sections of society, more so agricultural workers who have no means of raising voice against the action of the mighty State government”.

This brings to an end the tortuous, 10-year saga, that also saw the end of the CPI (M)-led Left Front’s over three-decade rule in West Bengal. It is a victory for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC), which led a vigorous protest movement against the land acquisition.

The Left Front government came to power in West Bengal in 1977 and ruled the State till 2011, when it lost to Mamata’s TMC. Its attempts for revival fell flat when it again suffered a crushing loss to TMC in the 2016 Assembly elections.

Lagging in industrialisation

West Bengal was among the top five industrialised States in the country till the 1960s. Many industry majors in the early decades after Independence had their headquarters in Kolkata and their manufacturing plants elsewhere in the State. But since then, Bengal has lagged in industrial development and, though it is tempting to blame labour unrest and militant trade unionism for this, low profitability, poor infrastructure and “poor investment climate” are perhaps more compelling reasons for the capital flight.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Left Front government put in place a comprehensive land reform programme – Operation Barga – which gave land to the landless, tenancy rights to sharecroppers and imposed a ceiling on land holdings. Thousands of landless and marginal farmers benefited from this progressive programme and they ended up forming the support base for the Left Front in the State.

But after Jyoti Basu relinquished the Chief Minister’s post after the 2001 elections and Buddhadev Bhattacharya took over as Chief Minister there was a growing feeling among Left circles that agriculture-led development had run its course and, to raise growth and create more jobs, industrial investment was needed in the State.

So it was the ‘reformist’ trio of Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Finance Minister Ashim Dasgupta and Industries Minister Nirupam Sen that set the ball rolling to bring in more industrial investment in the State. Though there were some murmurs against this from the old guard, the ‘reformist’ wing carried the day.

The case for small industry

In 2002, nine economists (most of whom were teaching in western universities) including Kaushik Basu, Pranab Bardhan, Maitreesh Ghatak and Abhijit Banerjee, wrote an important paper which was published in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) titled “Strategy for Economic Reform in West Bengal”. The authors of this paper argued that though West Bengal had made impressive strides in agricultural development and establishing Panchayati Raj institutions it was lagging behind in industry and higher education.

The authors argued that Bengal had missed the bus on the IT revolution so it was not possible for Kolkata to emerge as an IT hub like Bengaluru or Hyderabad. So, instead of focusing on hitech industries they were in favour of supporting small-scale, labour-intensive industries that could generate more low, and semi-skilled employment. The authors had urged the emulation of the Chinese model of industrialisation with emphasis on small-scale, labour-intensive units based in villages and towns.

So the industrial strategy put forth by the authors hinged on three factors — infrastructure, education and small-scale industries focusing on light manufacturing. The paper suggested a number of steps to create an enabling environment to encourage small-scale industries.

But the Left Front government, favouring big industry, invited the Tata Group to set up the Nano plant in Singur and an Indonesian group to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram. This strategy unraveled in due course and both the industrial groups exited the State for greener pastures. The CPI(M)’s land acquisition policy came in for severe criticism from various quarters.

In another paper written by Maitreesh Ghatak and others, also published in EPW in 2013, the authors conclude based on a household survey conducted in 12 villages in Singur, that the plots acquired were substantial in size and a significant number of farmers were under-compensated largely due to miss-classification of land. The study also shows that incomes and consumption of the affected people also fell sharply compared with the people who were unaffected.

Missed opportunity

A few years ago, I happened to meet one of the authors of the 2002 paper mentioned earlier when he came to deliver a lecture in Chennai. In a conversation after the talk, the issue of Singur and Nandigram figured. This economist, who teaches in a leading US university, seemed to be genuinely aggrieved about how the Left Front’s industrialisation programme had gone belly-up and rued the missed opportunity. He conceded that, despite the good intentions, many things had gone wrong and it was too late to set things right (this conversation took place when the Left Front was at the fag end of its term in Bengal).

So, would things have turned out differently had the Left Front government focused on labour-intensive small industries, taking a cue from China instead of inviting the big industrial groups, which tend to be capital-intensive? Was the Left Front too caught up in a competitive spiral with other States in going after the Tata Group and other big industrialists?

To get answers to these questions, one would have to wait for the memoirs of a CPI (M) leader like Biman Bose or Ashim Dasgupta.

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