Nirupam Sen: “We followed rules.We are now working on a rehabilitation package.”
By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
WITH Tata Motors suspending work at the Nano plant site in Singur and exploring alternative sites outside West Bengal, the prospect of an industrial revival in the State hang by a thread. In an exclusive interview with Frontline on September 3, State Industries Minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Nirupam Sen spoke at length on the importance of the project and why it is impossible for the State government to return the 400 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] of land to reluctant land-losers, as demanded by Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee.
According to Sen, it is not a question of compensation alone but also one of including the poor people in the region in the industrial process.
Excerpts from the interview, which took place before the two sides held talks at Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s initiative:
Q:What impact will a departure of Tata Motors’ Nano project have on West Bengal?
Nirupam Sen: It is bad news for West Bengal, but I still see a ray of hope. If we can resolve the issue amicably within a short space of time, we hope to be able to persuade Tata Motors to restart work at the plant site.
From the economic point of view, the automobile industry accelerates growth in the manufacturing sector by acting as a stimulant for the growth of small and medium enterprises manufacturing components. It is not just the small car mother plant that had come but also 55 component manufacturers. The number of people expected to get employment in these enterprises would have been more than double the number of people engaged in the mother plant.
Moreover, other component manufacturers were also showing interest in investing in the State; this, in turn, would have encouraged other automobile manufacturers also to come to the State.
This automobile plant is extremely important in India. Every international player has started looking at India as a destination to set up its unit. At present there are three automobile manufacturing centres in the country, in the north, the south and the west, and it was time for the east, and West Bengal had the opportunity to house this kind of a project, which would have accelerated growth, added to the revenue generation of the State government, and increased the employment potential in the State.
With the entire world looking on with interest at this project, the decision of the Tatas has tarnished the image of not only the State but the whole country. If a project of this kind cannot be implemented in the State, it will have an adverse impact on the minds of the potential investors as well.
Q:Was the State government expecting a decision like this?
Nirupam Sen: Well, Mr Tata was naturally concerned because nobody would want the factory to run under police protection. He had hoped that the people of the State would want a project like the small car factory and there would be a peaceful atmosphere in the workplace.
I can understand his point of view. Any investor would want that.
What is particularly disturbing is that those who are agitating in Singur had promised the State government that they would not indulge in violence, nor impede the activities in the factory. Unfortunately that was not the case. They stopped workers from going into the factory. They blocked the passage of some engineers who had come down from abroad to help in the work, and finally forced Tata Motors to suspend operations.
Q:Has the State government spoken to the Tatas to change their mind and give West Bengal one more chance?
Nirupam Sen: Not yet. Let us resolve the issue first. Attempts are on, and with the Honourable Governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, taking the initiative and talking with both the sides to settle the issue, we are hopeful of a positive result soon.
Q:Why is it not possible to return the 400 acres to the unwilling farmers, as demanded by Mamata Banerjee? Could the Tatas not have been persuaded?
Nirupam Sen: It’s not about persuading the Tatas; the question of returning land is a very complicated one. Initially, when the project was conceived, it was done in such a fashion that along with the mother plant, the vendors’ park would be an essential component and would be complementary to the mother plant. The Nano is an extremely price-sensitive car. Therefore, when the planning of the project was done, all the vendors’ and component manufacturers’ exact locations were also determined to the best advantage of the project. Accordingly, vendors were given land allotment. So, when the question arises to returning a portion of that land, it will be tantamount to abandonment of the project itself.
Secondly, even if it is agreed that the land may be returned, the question is whether it is possible to return the land acquired under the Land Acquisition Act to the erstwhile owners. In this case, the verdict of the Supreme Court has made it absolutely clear that this is not possible. The verdict states categorically that once land has been acquired under the Land Acquisition Act, it cannot be returned to the erstwhile owners.
Moreover, the Calcutta High Court has upheld the legality of the land acquisition proceedings in Singur and decided that the land acquired for the Tata project is an acquisition for a public purpose. Though the judgment has been challenged in the Supreme Court, until and unless the Supreme Court turns it down, the High Court verdict stands. But, going back to the main point, even legally, whichever government may be in power, it cannot return the land to its erstwhile owners.
There is another important aspect involved in this: of the total land-losers in the acquisition of 997 acres, those who have refused compensation are being called ‘unwilling land-losers’; there is no such term in the Land Acquisition Act. There is no provision in the Act to take into consideration who is willing and who is not. At the time of notification for land acquisition, farmers were allowed to express their points of view at the hearings; we have followed all the rules, never once deviating from the legal path.
But, for the sake of argument, let us take into consideration the ‘unwilling farmers’; the point now is, is their land in a contiguous area or on one side of the location? No. It is spread over the entire site, as the map I have given you clearly shows, and to return such land, as I have said, would mean abandoning the project.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we return the land to the unwilling farmer. In order to do that we have to give him access to his own land, and for that we have to take other land also. Is that feasible?
I’d like to make another point. So, we cannot return to the unwilling land-losers the land they held; but we can add up the total amount of land, and that amount we can give to them from a portion of the land in one corner of the site. In other words, we take the land of A, who has taken the compensation, and give it to B, who has refused compensation, taking into account the fact that after the construction of the factory the price of land has shot up.
Would that be morally justifiable? What answer will the government give to the man who gave his land willingly for compensation only to see it handed over to another who has defied the law, and particularly when the value of the land has increased so very much? If they (the ‘willing’ farmers) knew this is what would happen, they would not have agreed to part with their land in the first place. Such a thing would jeopardise the entire land acquisition process and set a precedent that would impact not only the State but the country as a whole.
Q:So what were the alternatives?
Nirupam Sen: First, let us get one thing clear: what is the main issue here? It is whether the government is serious about protecting the economic interests of those who lose their land; whether they are being thrown out or being included in the process of development. In this particular case, the State government has all along been willing to consider all the proposals by which we can protect the interests of those land-losers – particularly the marginal farmers and sharecroppers. It can be through the provision of jobs and through other kinds of activities such as skill-upgradation programmes, and even providing help to set up some kind of business. If your interest is to protect the livelihood of the people in the region, then there is enough scope to do so; and I say they should have a better livelihood after this industrialisation.
Q:Did you consider hiking the compensation?
Nirupam Sen: First, the price given to farmers at the time of land acquisition was considerably higher than the market price at that time. The price of the best land there, just by the National Highway, was not more than Rs.2 lakh an acre then, but we gave much more than that. But it would be wrong to compare it with today’s price because after the Tatas started setting up their factory, the price has shot up.
Secondly, I don’t think merely compensation is enough. I believe there should also be a rehabilitation programme. Whatever be the compensation, it is important that an alternative means of livelihood also be provided; we have been working on that right from the day we started acquiring the land. Almost simultaneously, we issued an advertisement in newspapers inviting applications from employable members of the families of land-losers. More than 3,000 people responded, over 500 of them women and 500 agricultural labourers. They have been provided with different kinds of training; in fact, already more than 1,000 people of the area earn their livelihood from working in that particular plant. So, even before production, so many people have gained employment there.
Not only that, if you look at the local economy, it is evident how much it has grown since the construction work started at the plant site. Branches of banks have come up; recently in a fair organised in the region by Maruti, the company sold 20 cars in one day in Singur alone. A number of motorised rickshaw vans have replaced cycle rickshaws and handcarts; so many people are engaged in supplying different kinds of construction materials – sand, bricks, stone chips.
Self-help groups have emerged. While 40 women have been provided sewing machines, 25 women run a canteen. As many as 350 boys are being given advanced training so that they can be employed in the factory itself. So, you can see there is quite a huge growth in economic activities in the Singur area. All these activities have taken place at the initiative of the State government to rehabilitate the people of the region.
Even after all these efforts if it was brought to our notice that someone had been left out, we were committed to protecting their interests as well. Even if there was no one employable in a particular family for any number of reasons, and there was no other means for them to survive than through land, we were ready to provide relief and assistance to them. We are open to any new ideas.
Q:Is the State government coming up with any plan regarding its land acquisition policy to avoid such fiascos in the future?
Nirupam Sen: We are now working on a rehabilitation package. Wherever we want to acquire land we discuss with the local people and try to evolve a package. Every industry has its own specific nature, as does every area.
While we cannot compare one with another, there should be certain common features in the rehabilitation package offered. We are working on that. In fact, recently we had a workshop involving economists, social scientists and the chambers of commerce, where we exchanged views and ideas.
We are also continuously discussing among ourselves, with our Left Front partners. We will come out with a publication once we arrive at a comprehensive consensus.