Friday, March 16, 2007

Truth and rumors - the Nandigram tragedy

Last night at about ten, I received a call from a school friend of mine. He sounded agitated. The issue was Nandigram. He said he had spoken to many people in West Bengal and in towns near Nandigram. He had worked in that locality in his younger days as an officer in a public sector company and clearly knows the region well. The gist of his statements were as follows:

"A very bad and evil thing has happened. The government and the cadres of the Left Front have gone on a spree killing innocent people. While the official numbers say 14 dead, the actual number of dead is over 500. A ditch in Nandigram is littered with bodies. Something like this last happened in Jallianwala Bag. Everyone is West Bengal is agitated, people are coming out on the streets in Kolkata. This Left Front government will not get elected again. West Bengal is on fire."

Clearly the revolutionary spirit of my friend had been awakened by what by all accounts is a most tragic incident. He said all this and more. While I am relying on my memory to write the statements, I can assure you that there is no exaggeration. I had also been watching the news on prime time television switching between CNN-IBN and NDTV trying to catch on what had happened (avoiding the noise of the anchor and concentrating on the visuals) and trying to make sense out of it. What I have understood so far (and even I have spoken to a few people in Kolkata):

1. The West Bengal CM quite some time back had assured the people of Nandigram that no land will be acquired for the SEZ if they did not want it and the SEZ will be shifted elsewhere. But apparently the administration was yet to withdraw the notice for land acquisition although all such activities had come to a stop.

2. In Nandigram, the CPI(M) cadres and administration officials had been driven out in January and since then they have not been able to go back. The villagers have bee under the control of the agitationists and quite possibly there are outsiders in their midst fomenting trouble. Roads have been dug up and ditches have been built to ensure that vehicles cannot move in.

3. The West Bengal government sent in police force to "reclaim Nandigram". Sometime back a policeman had been killed and his body discovered after many days. Apparently commingling with the police force were the CPI (M) cadres itching for violence and revenge.

In this melee one side started the firing - both sides obviously accuse the other. 14 lives, some innocent and some not, have been lost. Numerous questions crop up:

1. Who were the people who had driven out the administration and what were they holding out against even after the government had put a stop to land acquisition?

2. Who had supplied arms and ammunition to this group and what is their motive? Where did the crowd get crude bombs from?

3. Why had the West Bengal government not withdrawn the notification for land acquisition if it had acceded to the "people's will"?

4. Why were the police force sent on Wednesday - two months since the resistance? Should it have been sent earlier or later after trying to resolve the stand off through dialogues?

The media has been frothing at the mouth calling Buddhadeb Bhattacharya names and heralding the beginnings of a new revolution. One TV channel had the caption "Blood in Buddhadeb's hands". He has also been compared to General Dyer and in a comparison it was said that General Dyer was probably the better of the two. This debate has now turned into a debate of whether industrial development is necessary. Mamata Banerjee has already called for a 12-hour bandh in Kolkata today. Many political parties have supported it. The result is Kolkata will "enjoy" a three day weekend, few buses and taxis will be burnt, some public property will be destroyed and lakhs of students will not be able to appear for the board exams that are going on.

To my mind, the two casualties of this will be truth and development. I called back my friend about half an hour back to see if he had any further updates. He said, "The situation is not bad. Most of what I was told yesterday seems to be rumors (goojob is the Bengali term that he used). But today's bandh has brought life in Kolkata to a near stand still and those who have dared to venture out are facing numerous problems." There you have it. In a matter of twelve hours, the views had taken an about turn. I have long believed that:

1. Indian media should behave more responsibly, tell the truth but not necessarily be sensationalist at all times and also look at the greater national interest (read the balanced editorial in Indian Express today)

2. Indian government and states should do better PR

And of course I wish, but it is too much to expect, that political parties could at times rise beyond petty politicking.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

A balanced view is such a rarity.
Came here off SGT's blog and hope to be back, sir.


Duniya said...

I support Buddhadeb. Trinamool has been agitating against all industrial projects in West Bengal, no matter their merits. Funnily enough, Trinamool's own campaigns of violent intimidation do not receive attention in the media. Unless Trinamool is challenged and its campaign of lawlessness is stopped, West Bengal will not see the industrial development is needs.

Mishti said...

Thanks, J.A.P. Look forward to have you back.

Agree with your views, Duniya. In this entire tragedy and fiasco, what will be questioned is the fruits of economic reforms and the need for the same. The question is more about how do you acquire land? Is the process of industrialisation inevitable?

A friend of mine who is a keen student of history tells me that such problems have occurred everywhere in the world - the Tennesse Valley hydroelectric project being one example.

Some people say that why should the government get involved in land acquisition when it could be done between two private parties. This is right in theory, but does not work in practice. Therefore, the government has to step in.

Then comes the question of compensation. It should be fair market price and above, for sure. It cannot be land grab as is happening in some places in India. And the WB government did pay more than fair compensation at Singur at Rs12 lacs an acre. But you cannot ask the industry to pay a compensation that would be the value of the land once the industry has been set up and the region starts enjoying its fruits.

I guess we will see much more of this debate in the coming months.

Duniya said...

I had a look at some of the facts behind the Nandigram issue. It appears that no land acquisition notice has been enforced and the compensation issue has not been settled by the state government. So why the Trinamool-led campaign of looting, arson, rape and murder, which led to this confrontation with the police? The fact is that all governments have to acquire land for industrial projects - which put the poor into formal employment, with thousands of jobs directly created by the planned industrial complex in Nandigram. Compensation is always a controversial matter, but to riot before compensation has even been offered stinks of cynical opportunism by Trinamool. Is it any surprise that the police had to go into Nandivar with arms?

What is worse is that Trinamool has refused to even meet with other parties to solve the situation. It wants a violent confrontation because otherwise this party - a friend of Hindutva - will face extinction.

Duniya said...

I think compensation should be the current market value of the land, plus an adjustment for the length of tenure/ownership of the land (eg if a family has been on the land for 20 years, perhaps they could be given a 20% premium on the market value) - this would ensure that the right people are compensated and not opportunists who acquire land ahead of the state's land acquisition. In my experience of property ownership in West Bengal, tenants have a lot of bargaining power - perhaps too much. This isn't Bihar, where the government can easily clear people off their land.

If the Nandigram development does not go ahead, Trinamool will take its war to every industrial development and West Bengal will stagnate. That is not good for those who want jobs in the formal sector and it is not good for the future of the state.

Mishti said...

I completely agree with you. If Trnamool and others are really interested in fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised or the villagers they should:

1. Fight for compensation and not for stopping development. Practically all land in West Bengal is good for agriculture.

2. Find out mechanism on how to ensure that the locals get vocational training to become employable and have a stake in the development in the region. I know from my friends in Tata group that a vocational training school has been started in Singur. When I say the government should not be apologetic about reforms or industrialisation, but sell its side of the story well. Why every wall that is broken in Singur is highlgihted but not the fact that a training school has been started?

3. What pains me how everyone has suddenly jumped onto Mamata's side and resurrected her. Even Medha Patkar, who I used to resepct a lot, suddenly appeared in Singur. What had she studied about the Singur issue in a day to land up their and start agitating?

4. Ensure enough counselling in the local areas and villages to ensure that the compensation is not frittered away in gambling, drinking etc.

But these are hard measures and hard work. Why will the political parties do it? It is much easier to rasie the decibel level, create chaos and burn bridges, buses and break taxis!

Duniya said...

You are absolutely right, "mishti". I wonder just how many residents of Singur actually support Trinamool's agitations. How many of the arsonists and saboteurs are actually from Singur and how many of them are Trinamool goondas?

The West Bengal government may not be perfect, but they are far more sensitive to residents' concerns than other states - particularly those run by Trinamool's BJP allies. For instance, when the state government cleared squatters from railway land, they were given land near the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass and there was little resistance or complaint from the squatters. The state government was under no obligation to do this - it was within its legal rights to beat the squatters off the land.

I've been to villages in BJP-run Jharkhand where poverty is as bad as Africa, but you don't see this in West Bengal, thanks to the political leadership. And Jharkhand has far more natural wealth than West Bengal, with a thriving mining industry. Trinamool would rather have no development and have Bengalis living like Biharis.

The most disturbing aspect of the Nandigram controversy is Trinamool's alliance with Naxalites, who have been attacking trains in southwest Bengal. This is not a legitimate protest, it is terrorism.

neermathalam said...

a balanced post...