Wednesday, August 27, 2008

West Bengal’s future in limbo

West Bengal’s future in limbo
By Susenjit Guha

The indefinite sit-in demonstration by Mamta Bannerjee of the Trinamul Congress party in front of what is to be the world’s cheapest car factory--- a 4D hatchback Nano by Tata Motor ---is not only about returning 400 acres farmland allegedly wrested from the villagers by the ruling Left Front government in addition to 600 acres offered to Tata’s for the plant.

It is about gaining control of rural Bengal which has helped the Front---headed by the CPM (Marxist communist party) and several smaller left parties--- romp home to power in successive elections for the last 30 years.

The CPM led government was led for the first 24 years from 1977 by veteran communist Jyoti Basu who sewed together the Left Front before handing over charge after the 2001 election victory to his protégé, a literature aficionado, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, earlier known for his haughty intellectual demeanour. The patriarch who oversaw Left Front’s ride to power may witness its climb down.

While Bengal turned into a graveyard for industries thanks to militant communist affiliated trade unions in the first 24 years. Buddhadeb switched gears to court industry after bending over backwards in a bid to spruce up the state’s image. Even the British Airways office was vandalized by party cadres in the early 90’s. Investors considered it suicidal to plough capital in West Bengal.

Contrary to logical analogy that everything was hunky dory in agricultural Bengal, mostly party cadres and sympathizers flourished while the bulk of the poor farmers whose holdings were insufficient to make ends meet could not find occupation in industries as they closed down or were shifted out of the state. Leftists harp that industrial policy was on the blueprint way back in 1996 under Buddhadeb’s predecessor, couching it in traditional pretexts of a step-motherly central government which neglected the state. But that does not explain the erosion of work culture, conduct of irresponsible trade unions, strikes at the drop of a hat and flight of capital to greener pastures.

The only notable industrial activity during the last decade of Jyoti Basu’s time was restricted to several MOU’s (Memorandum of Understanding), perhaps to add credence to his regular summer trips to Europe. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, in the last 7 years, required to visit abroad officially, only a couple of times.

Trouble erupted last year in rural Nandigram, 70 kms south west of Kolkata with a sizable Muslim population---they form 27% in the state and impact electoral results-- when police with armed communist party cadres beat up and fired at unarmed villagers protesting against land-takeover for a proposed chemical hub to be set up by the Indonesian Selim group...

Singur, 50 kms from Kolkata, from where Nano, priced at an incredible $2500, is expected to roll out in the October festive season, also has a sizable Muslim population and where the sit-in demonstration has begun from last Sunday.

Opiners with non-journalistic gingerliness highlighted only the Muslim’s plight---they are the most secure in Bengal---without treating it as a rural raw deal. Both Tapasi Malik, a teenager allegedly raped and murdered and a woman stripped and dragged along during the last village level elections in which the Left slithered in their strongholds, were non-Muslims. Print media, even if mandarins are unwilling to admit, are at risk from electronic media, internet, text messages, citizen journalism and blogs---the portals in the near future for the wired generation---for news upfront without tails tied to some pressure group or other.

Violence simmered even though chief minister Buddhadeb categorically withdrew the proposal of a chemical hub.

Priced at an incredible $2500, Nano is expected to hit the roads in the October festive season.

Problem has arisen with the 400 acres earmarked for ancillary units, which the opposition TMC---other parties have also jumped into the bandwagon---wants returned to the farmers and the land sourced elsewhere. It is not possible for ancillary units to be distanced from the mother plant. After sidling off the forced acquisition issue, the government confessed using a late 19th century colonial act to justify the takeover and reiterated its inability to return citing legal tangles. Tata group has issued an ultimatum of pulling out even at a cost of nearly $350 million if the demonstration does not cease.

The Left government’s obituary will be inked with their exit as several other projects in the pipeline on several thousands of acres of land are watching this mammoth investment after several decades before taking a plunge.

In thrall of Stalin, the vintage Marxists of Bengal---some of whom had honed their intellect in US and West European academes--- packed off information technology during the initial years and withdrew English instructions at the primary level in government schools to perhaps create a non-skeptical bureaucracy, turned arrogant with untrammeled power. Arrogance persisted even after capital was courted with gusto and villages, the core constituency, were taken for granted.

And Buddhadeb Bhattacharya once again---like he did some years ago by talking about the profusion of madrasas along the Indo-Bangla border only to retract later--- waded into controversy by admitting his displeasure over the Left’s penchant for bandhs about which he promised to let his views known in future. Whether he can do it or it was meant for the Assocham crowd is not known.

What is clear is that the government is now taking no chances with the proposed thermal power plant in Katwa near Burdhwan for which it has called an all party meeting.

Clearly, the siege of the Durgapur expressway by TMC which is now the quickest conduit to Kolkata from neighbouring states is threatening to send prices of essentials skyrocketing. But the freeway is a fairly recent phenomenon to attract investments for which Kolkata is also spruced up.

Left Front had the villagers with them not so long ago who are now threatening to careen towards Mamta Bannerjee, known for being headstrong and unpredictable. Not being the darling of the English language media which pitches for Buddhadeb and a resurgent Kolkata, Mamta is banking on the villages to switch sides.

She is unmoved by overtures by the administration for talks as this is her only chance to unseat the Left in the coming elections even if it means setting back Bengal’s clock once again.
And for this impasse, it is the Left who should shoulder much of the blame for not having taken time and patience to convince villagers and allowing her to take centre stage.

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