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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Requiem on Singur

Monday 26 January 2009, by Subrata Sinha

The Singur land acquisition, accompanied by violence and police high-handedness in West Bengal, hit the national headlines in 2007. The forcible land annexation for the benefit of the Tata corporate group provoked a revolt by the local farming community. This spread to active protest by virtually all sectors of urban civil society, marking a landmark episode in independent India. Thereafter, resistance to land acquisition is frequently occurring in many a State, including Haryana, Orissa, Maharashtra and even Delhi!

An expert on land related issues, D. Bandyopadhyay (the former State Land Reforms Commissioner and Central Revenue Secretary), categorically pointed out that the Singur acquisition impinges on the Indian constitutional provisions, since the Tata car project is not in essential public interest. The State Government was reluctant to release the contents of their “confidential” agreement with the Tatas before the public. The much vaunted “Right to Information Act” bestows “rights” only on vested interests!

The Tatas were compelled to shift their men and machineries in mid-2008. However, squabbles between political parties in power or opposition with issues of inadequate compensation, rehabilitation and local employment holding centre-stage, continued. Apparently, no of group was opposed to the car factory, provided the surplus land is returned and proper prices paid! Even a compromise formula worked out by the Governor was ignored by the major ruling party.

A news item on December 23, 2008 in The Statesman, hinted that the Tatas would quit Singur only after eight months and the First Automobile Works (FAW) of China may enter the arena. Hopefully, this new actor does not turn up and the land and partly built-up factory shed become available for a better use. In any case, even if the land rights remain with the Tatas, or reverts to the State Government, a land utilisation blueprint should be based on the following considerations :

First: As part of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna-Hooghly system and deltaic Sundarbans encompassing India and Bangladesh, the Hooghly basin is amongst the prime fertile alluvial tracts in the world. With its colossal groundwater and surface water endowments, Singur has prime fertility in this zone! It is multi-cropped round the year, with a network of canals and small tubewells developed with hundreds of crores of rupees at pre-inflation levels.

Secondly: Singur is underlain by unconfined, sandy aquifer bodies right from land surface facilitating seepage of toxic wastes (including heavy metal scrapings, paint residues, exuded from any car factory). This shall pollute the entire groundwater system lower down—up to the sea face. However, a short distance westward, the geology alters, having clayey layers near the surface; direct seepage of pollutants would then be substantially less.

Thirdly: Colossal volumes of monsoonal overland water flow down slope from the north. If the Singur-Rajarhat belt develops into a major urban-industrialisation agglomeration, it will act as a wall to divert that flow into the Kolkata Metropolitan area, or even Bangladesh, causing severe flood aggravation. In this major basin of loose alluvial formations, even a catastrophic change of the Hooghly course cannot be ruled out! In the context of the global food crisis, instead of ruining such a prime fertile tract providing food surpluses, industrialisation could as well be taken up in the Durgapur or other tracts underlain by hard formations and environmentally less vulnerable!

Fourthly: The reality of Global Warming—triggered, inter alia, by emissions from transportation and industrial units—must be considered. Two-stroke engines, akin to Tata’s dirt-cheap ‘Nano’ car, cannot deal with toxic emissions. The Kolkata urban middle class will buy them to realise a cherished dream! With the Kolkata Metropolitan area and the Sundarbans delta already warned as a zone under imminent threat, the city’s doomsday shall be hastened!

THE crux of the matter is that whomsoever inherits the land rights, can convert Singur into a viable agro-based system through sustainable organic farming. The prime mover can support and provide the local community with a premium livelihood for urban and global markets. The constructed shed can also be utilised for setting up small value addition and processing units for organic farm products.

West Bengal boasts of thousands of rural self-help groups run by local women in each district; these can be utilised in farming and for value addition. The State has a major rural and urban unemployment problem. The unemployed local young men, in tandem with those from urban areas, can be organised for marketing the fresh produce, and processed food, from such an invaluable organic farming system. With their premium price levels in markets for organic food, this shall substantially raise the current economic levels around Singur. Whereas modern, automated industries can employ just a few, this blueprint can provide employment to thousands. Singur was a landmark of resistance to forcible land acquisition; it can now be a prototype for more equitable and sustainable land utilisation for India!

The author is a former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India.

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