Traffic on the highway going past Singur has slowed to a crawl after the ruling Trinamool Congress set up an enormous stage across the lanes used by cars leaving Kolkata. On September 14, West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will return in triumph to a site where she took the first steps in her ascent to the chief minister’s post. She will hand fields back to tillers following a Supreme Court verdict nullifying the takeover of farmland under eminent domain legislation by the previous state government, which leased 1,000 acres to the Tata Motor Company for the building of a small car plant. The abandoned Tata factory lies close to the highway, and the unused tract around it could hold a dozen stages and rallies, but what’s the use of power if you can’t flaunt it by inconveniencing the public?
I passed Singur for the first time two days before Banerjee’s mammoth celebration. Despite all the news reports I had read and watched over the past decade, I hadn’t understood exactly how close it is to Kolkata. Had the Tatas been offered a more distant location, difficult to access for media persons and activists, the drama might have played out differently. But it was no more possible to foresee that a farmer’s agitation in Singur would capture the national imagination than it was to predict Tata’s cheap four wheeler would disastrously fail to do so.
In May 2006, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s stock was higher than it had ever been. That month, he was sworn in as West Bengal's Chief Minister for the second time. The left-wing coalition he headed had retained power five years previously with a severely reduced majority, prompting questions about its future viability. Taking over the reins of the party from the ageing Jyoti Basu, Bhattacharya built middle class and urban support by promising a reinvigoration of the economy through re-industrialisation. For a party to increase its seat count in the state legislature after 29 years in power as the Communist Party of India(Marxist) did in 2006 defied national and global trends that suggested anti-incumbency was becoming more powerful with each passing election.
Left of the left
Perhaps the victory imbued Bhattacharya with a hubristic desire to reshape the state more rapidly than onerous regulations allowed. His government cut corners in hastily acquiring land on behalf of the car company, and pigheadedly defended its actions even as Singur turned into a battleground, and left-wing intellectuals from within and outside the state turned against the communists. In 2009, they were drubbed in national polls. Two years later, the Trinamool gained a majority in the state legislature. In 2016, Banerjee’s party was re-elected in a landslide.
Taking a cue from Singur and similar agitations elsewhere in the country, the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre replaced the 1894 law that had been used to acquire land for the Tatas with the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 which protected famers’ rights and emphasised generous compensation for landowners. Private firms protested that the new law made it almost impossible to acquire land on which to build factories. After coming to power in Delhi, Narendra Modi tried to tweak the law to make it more friendly to industrialists, but backed away after facing a rare backlash from within his own party and the Sangh parivar. Singur had made farmers’ claims over land such a crucially important issue that even Modi couldn’t summon enough political capital to push through legislation curbing those rights.
In Singur a decade ago, the West Bengal government acquired a total of 1,000 acres, or 404 hectares of land. Of that total, 600 acres was sold voluntarily. The remaining 400 acres, taken over from reluctant sellers, was shared between 2,200 farmers. Including share croppers and other agricultural labourers, the total number of workers affected by the expropriation was 3,569. This means that about 9 workers live off every acre, or 22 workers off each hectare, without factoring in children and other dependents. Even some of the most fertile land on earth (as the area around Singur was often described) cannot hope to provide a comfortable life to such multitudes. The same applies across the country as the average size of landholdings has virtually halved in the past two decades, shrinking to a paltry 0.59 hectares in 2013. These farms cannot support India’s youth, nor can our cities provide enough of them gainful employment.
Mamata Banerjee’s triumphant rally represents a small victory and a big defeat. The victory lies in the return of land to owners from whom it was unfairly snatched. What they will do with farms on which a large industrial plant has been built is another matter. The large defeat Singur represents is India’s chronic inability to acquire land for industrial projects while adequately compensating those whose property has been expropriated. The nation’s political parties share a similar economic vision, and all of them recognise the economic imperative of rapid industrialisation as well as the moral and political imperative of treating marginal landholders justly. But not one has pulled off the balancing act between the two imperatives. I won’t be surprised if Mamata Banerjee, having outflanked the communists from the left, finds herself similarly exposed in the future.