Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Veering Away

The agitation witnessed in Singur during the proposed Tata Nano project was a watershed moment in the history of peasant agitations. Although this movement was also supposedly started by the farmers, as was the case in the Telengana or PEPSU tenants' movement in the pre-independence days, it has a basic difference. The Singur agitation was against the 'forcible' land acquisition by the state government whereas the former movements were against the perpetual oppression of the farmers by the jagirdars under the tutelage of the British Raj.

The Singur agitation opened the pandora's box about opposing any move involving lands by big corporate houses or even the state government. The now infamous Nandigram agitations led even to bloodshed. The common concept of "Government acquiring land for the greater public good" has also been given a rude jolt by the protests against the Yamuna highway in Uttar Pradesh.

However, the very CPI(M) government, against whom the Singur agitation was directed, gave us perhaps the perfect model of implementing a project at the grassroot level where the poorest rural people are the target victims and in turn beneficiaries.

After coming to power in West Bengal in 1977 (along with CPI and Bangla congress), the communist government launched the 'Operation Barga' in 1978. It aimed to officially register the sharecroppers (locally called bargadars, hence the name) to take them within the folds of  ongoing peasant-centric socialist reforms. The reforms aimed to empower the sharecroppers by officially recording their names & then converting them to landowners, albeit small ones.

However, the unique capstone of this entire project was the method adopted by the government to make the rural sharecroppers participate in the whole process of registration. Before the operation, several 'Workshops on land reforms' were held which mandated the setting up of Settlement or Reorientation camps. The first camp was at Halusai in the Hoogly district.

In these Settlement or Reorientation camps, several officials from the Land reform and other departments were made to stay and dine together with 30-40 agricultural workers and sharecroppers. Each of these camps went on for three days. Interestingly, these camps were publicised by distributing leaflets and beating of drums in the villages.

The second important feature of the Workshops were the meeting between the government officials and the bargadars. This led to eradication of collusion between the land reforms officers and the rich landowners, who would have benefitted largely by keeping the sharecropppers out of the official list. Last but not the least, common villagers participated in the verification of lands. This also led to transparency in the whole process by reducing the chances of fraudulent measurements.

All these important steps taken by the government led to the orientation of the villagers with the whole process. Moreover, the peasant arm of the poliitical party worked to reduce the rich landowner's clout and thereby ensuring transparency.

All these factors combined led to a considerable success of the operation. Out of the total 2.4 million bargadars present in West Bengal, only 0.4 million were registered in 1978 (before the launch of the operation). However, the number of recorded bargadars increased to 1.4 million in 1990, in merely a decade after the launch.

However, in Singur, this approach to make the farmers oriented to the benefits of the whole process was missing. Police force was also used during the acquisition process. The superbly conceptualized 'camps' just three decades earlier were missing. Perhaps the landslide victory in the state polls in 2006 made them myopic and hence the eventual disregard of the importance of 'orientation' among the villagers.

Interestingly though, Government offered quite high prices for the lands acquired and bargadars were included for the first time in India in the list of people entitled to compensation.

But saddeningly, the lack of understanding among the villagers about the upcoming long-term benefits smoothened the path for people like Jamait-e-Ulema-i-Hind leader Siddikulla Chowdhury to portray the nano car project as something which will only make them surrender their priceless ancestral possession - their land. Even 'preachers' from other areas foreign to Singur went there to make the predominantly muslim farmers understand the impending disaster.

The government policy also 'veered away' from that of Operation Barga. In case of Singur, the peasant arms of the political party were used to drive home the administrative agenda forcefully to the villagers rather than make them realize the benefits.

Perhaps a 'reincarnation' of the workshops (and within it, the camps) can be seen in the project for the expansion of the Cochin airport. In the aforesaid action, a neutral negotiation committee was formed which was chaired by an MoS. This committee also included representatives of landowners, the district magistrate, elected Panchayat leaders and also the representatives from the company running the airport.

As already admitted by the left leaders, the acquisition process of lands in Singur was faulty & the 'masses' should have been taught about it beforehand. Ironically, this comes from the very government which registered a massive success during Operation Barga. The government clearly has veered away from the success path, even having partly lost control over its peasant wing which has turned into an autocratic arm.

This digression may prove costly to the communist government in 2011.

Subham Ghosh works as a Software Engineer in a reputed IT Consultancy company. His areas of interests are India's Foreign and domestic policies.He may be contacted at indianpolicy2010@gmail.com 

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