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Singur: Bengal must go ahead

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MS MAMTA BANNERJEE, Trinamul Congress leader, protesting against the State government's decision to acquire land in Singur for the proposed Tata Motors plant... In the implementation of such projects, it is not always possible to avoid trespassing on farmlands.
MS MAMTA BANNERJEE, Trinamul Congress leader, protesting against the State government's decision to acquire land in Singur for the proposed Tata Motors plant... In the implementation of such projects, it is not always possible to avoid trespassing on farmlands.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

What happened in the West Bengal Assembly last Thursday is not only shameful from the point of view of a functioning parliamentary democracy but is also totally unacceptable given the dire need of the State to make that desperately-needed economic quantum jump, which would propel it on the path of rapid industrial progress for at least the next 15 years.

The tragedy is that everyone concerned in the State's political firmament agrees with this required economic scenario and yet, because of short-sighted political compulsions, a section of that crowd has not hesitated to make a public display of a sentiment which cannot but douse the renewed interest among intending investors in the region.

Indeed, the long and the short of it, as far as West Bengal's economic development is concerned, is that Singur must be allowed to happen because if it does not, the Chief Minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's long-term plans for the economic rejuvenation of the State will fail. The bigger tragedy is that, if this were to happen, West Bengal, in all probability, would have lost a rare opportunity of reversing its past record of industrial stagnation (as opposed to rapid farm growth) which, by all accounts, is needed if the State is to score handsomely once again after a few decades in the game of balanced economic growth in the region.

Why Singur?

It may be asked, why Singur, especially when a whole lot of other projects have been planned and are already in various stages of implementation, which will also contribute to the renewed industrial profile of the State? The answer is simple, namely, that the small-car project to be set up there is a high-profile project with a national dimension (in the sense that there were competing sites for it in other parts of the country) and, perhaps more importantly, a house like the Tatas is involved.

Clearly, if the Tatas fail to set up their car project at Singur, it would send out an important signal to other big industrial houses that West Bengal is not yet ready for large, `quality' investments, a perception which, at the end of it all, would be harmful to the interests of the people of the State, both farmers and non-farmers alike.

People opposed to the Singur project could well argue (as its political opponents have) that the Tatas are welcome investors to the State and that what is being asked of them is not to pack up and leave West Bengal but to shift to some other location within the State, which would have the effect of looking after the interests of the multi-crop farmers of Singur and also the larger economic interests of the State as well.

This is a sensible enough argument but only if one is prepared to discount the huge symbolic negative impact of the Government having to backtrack on an investment decision as crucial as this one in the given overall economic circumstance the State finds itself in today, and also the impact on the Tatas and their subsequent decision on the project whether to continue with it or not in West Bengal.

Singur, therefore, has to happen. The all-important issue is: Should other Singurs be allowed to happen also, the answer to which is a firm no. Those who indulged in vandalism in the State assembly last week would have picked up some sympathy if they had been confronted by an official stand allowing other, similar projects to come up on fertile, multi-crop land, generally. But this, emphatically, is not the case.

One-off case

On the contrary, the Left Front Government has made it abundantly clear that Singur is a one-off case and that in all other cases of large projects being sanctioned, the Government will ensure that multi-crop land is affected as minimally as possible, and that the strictest watch will be kept on the leased land, which will be released in a phased manner linked to actual performance of the investment in question. (Singur involves around 1,000 acres while the Government has plans to acquire around 44,000 acres for various industrial and infrastructure projects.)

In fact, an elaborate land-use map of the State is being drawn up, the objective being to avoid Singur-like problems, and not Singur-like projects. Even the most diehard but well-meaning critics of the Singur project have admitted two things: One, that projects like the Tata car plant are essential for the development of West Bengal and, two, that in the implementation of such projects it is not always possible to avoid `trespassing' on multi-crop plots.

Among others, in May this year the State Land Minister, Mr Abdur Rezak Mollah, said clearly that the State did not intend to use fertile agricultural land for industrial purposes "because self-reliance in food must be maintained". However, he added that, in order to make a plot for investment purpose contiguous, "some bits of fertile land may have to go".

Much the same point was made by the State Industry Minister, Mr Nirupam Sen, when he said around the same time that there were patches at the Singur site where crops were grown twice or thrice a year. However, the Government was helpless in making the Tatas change their mind, adding, "In a market economy, there is little that we can do if a company chooses a particular site."

Land-use map

Even the Opposition has come up with the same type of view on the use of multi-crop land. The Congress and Trinamul representatives on the State Assembly Standing Committee On Commerce And Industries said in their 15-page report: "Contiguous land, even 1000 acres, are not available in most districts of West Bengal except in Bankura and Purulia. Updated land-use map as a solution of the industrialisation process should be strictly followed." The report also speaks of proper compensation being paid to farmers adversely affected by the industrialisation drive, which is what the Left Front Government has been trying to put into practice anyway.

It is of passing interest that the report says that West Bengal "is a preferred destination for most business captains. Some have already put a foot forward while others are assessing the situation." This is not exactly a novel observation; neither is the following sentiment: "Our motto would be to transform West Bengal into an industrial hub not only in India but also in the whole of the South-East Asian region." One wonders what role Thursday's exhibition of hooliganism in the State Assembly premises played in this targeted transformation.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 4, 2006)
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