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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 02:23 GMT
Revolt against India's industrial changes

Soutik Biswas
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Singur, West Bengal

The land for the car factory has been fenced off

Every day, 35-year-old Bhuban Mohan Bagui trudges up to the rusty fence that has been erected around what was his family farm and stares at a parched swathe of land which was producing four crops a year not so long ago.

"This land was a life insurance for my family. It was always there for us to fall back upon in bad times. Now it is gone," he says.

A few months ago the Communist-run government in the eastern state of West Bengal acquired his - and some 11,000 other farmers' - land alongside a six-lane highway, some 50km from the capital, Calcutta.

Their farms have made way for a 1000-acre plot for Tata Motors, one of India's largest car makers, to set up a cheap ($2200) car factory.

The Communists say it is a prestigious project demonstrating their new found love for private capital.

But critics say the ruling party are caught up in a muddled perestroika and wrongly believe that industrialisation has to be sped up in a state which they themselves reduced to an industrial wasteland through reckless trade unionism and an appalling work culture.

'Biggest land grab'

At the heart of it, however, is a bigger issue which is bedevilling village India - governments are acquiring large tracts of land to set up special economic zones (SEZs) to push up employment and earnings.

The federal government reckons that the SEZs would bring in $13.5bn in investment and create 890,000 jobs by 2009 if this ambitious plan is allowed to proceed.

Bhuban Mohan Bagui
Land was a life insurance for my family
Bhuban Mohan Bagui, farmer
Critics say this is destined to become the biggest land grab in post-colonial India, given the lack of transparency and rampant corruption in government.

No wonder then that in the more politically conscious and predominantly agrarian economies like Bengal , farmers are up in arms against such land acquisition.

After a group of farmers set up a resistance group and refused compensation for their land in Singur, farmers rioted in faraway Nandigram after news washed up that some 12,000 acres of farmland were to be acquired for a chemical hub and a ship building yard to be set up by an Indonesian group.

The government had to backtrack and has now said that it will not force industry on unwilling farmers.

In Bengal, the resistance is also taking on a more complex character than in other parts of feudal India that have seen little or no land reforms.

'Sacred bond'

In the late 1970s when West Bengal Communists began their still-unbroken stint in power - seven straight election wins and 30 consecutive years in government, making Bengal the longest running Communist government in the world outside China - it redistributed over a million acres of land among the peasants.

"The Communists built up their political base by giving land to farmers. Now they are taking away the same land, and that too by force," says Sougata Roy of the opposition Trinamul Congress party.

For their part, the Communists deny using force, though they have taken advantage of 113-year-old colonial law which allows the state to acquire land with minimum public consultation.

Land gives security to the Indian farmer

At the heart of the problem is the primordial relationship between the land and the tiller in India, which even the market friendly federal finance minister P Chidambaram calls a "sacred bond".

"Owning a piece of land makes a farmer socially acceptable," says Debabrata Bandopadhyay, one of India's leading land experts.

At the same time, there is little doubt that without large scale industrialisation, India will never be able to create the millions of jobs for the teeming legions of unemployed.

And setting up factories will obviously need land - and in Bengal, the government claims to be targeting less than 1% of the total arable land in the state for industries.

Not adequate

Some economists say one way out is setting up industries in fallow lands, keeping farmers happy and food security intact. Some 18% of the land in Bengal, for example, by one estimate, is unsuitable for cultivation, so why not take the industries there?

But industry insists, not without reason, that it needs to be located near ports, railway stations and cities, not in the fallow boondocks, to make its products competitive.

So the government in Bengal, goes ahead and acquires prime farmland in Singur, paying farmers between $20,440 to $27,250 per acre, which does not look very adequate in a country with 6% plus inflation.

Mr Bagui is one of the farmers who has refused to pick up his compensation cheque and seems to be fighting an increasingly losing battle against the state.

Villagers in Singur are anxious about their future

He is a commerce graduate who had left his farm a few years ago to work in the capital, Delhi, as an accounts clerk, while his brother tilled the land. He has also taken a course in computers. He returned to the farm after his father died and took charge of the farming.

Land, clearly, gives him and his family the security, but if it is sold off, he could still get a job in the city.

"But what happens to others who have no such skills?" he says.

Tata Motors are promising 10,000 jobs at the factory - chief Ratan Tata says that the factory will "generate employment and improve livelihood opportunities for people".

But many of the jobs at the car factory will be highly skilled and nobody knows how many locals will qualify for the jobs the factory will create.

This is exactly the kind of lack of transparency from secretive governments and businesses that critics say could spur greater opposition to India's industrial revolution.

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