Sunday, August 24, 2008

The bumpy path of development in West Bengal

The Indian company Tata had been going to build its $2,500 Nano car in the state of West Bengal, which has been governed since 1977 by the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist). Now, however, the leader of the state's Congress party is threatening to stage a siege at the Tata plant until some land seized from local farmers is partly returned. The BBC reports:

Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress party, is not a woman who looks like she is about to change her mind. In spite of the threat by Tata's owner, Ratan Tata, to move the plant from Singur if the agitation continues, her party has announced an indefinite siege of the factory from Sunday. She wants 160 hectares (400 acres) of land returned to local farmers and she told me that she is not in the mood for a compromise.

"We are not interested who is Tata or data," she said.

"A good industrialist has also to be a good human being. The road is very clear - we are in favour of positive development. But if someone tries to blackmail us we will not bow our heads."

As the uncertainty over the plant continues, a number of other states in India have come forward and said they are more than happy to build the Nano.

Quelle surprise.

Added Aug. 25: Martha Nussbaum's interesting piece in the Spring 2008 issue of Dissent,
"Violence on the Left: Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal," gives a lot of background on politics and society in West Bengal and discusses the volatile issue of land seizures and industrial development, the dimensions of which are only hinted at by the Tata story. One paragraph from Nussbaum's article:

The first sign of trouble for the CPI(M)’s industrialization strategy came last year, when the government announced a deal to set up a Tata Group car plant in an agricultural area near Kolkata. Although the government claims (controversially) that it offered fair market value for the necessary land, the local inhabitants protested vigorously. The government’s basic idea, though contested by those who unduly romanticize agriculture, has won wide support from development thinkers (including [Amartya] Sen, for example), particularly in light of the fact that the Tata Group, an India-based corporation, has a record of sensitivity and decency on employment issues. The protests, moreover, were clearly staged by Mamata Banerjee to at least some extent, in a grab for personal power after a bad electoral defeat. Singur’s population is not overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture. Still, there were ominous signs for the future, such as the government’s lack of attention to transitional skills training and to public debate. Many people wondered why the government had selected this fertile tract of land for industrial development, rather than nonarable land closer to the city; the government refused to answer such questions.
She goes on to discuss CPI-M violence against villagers in Nandigram, site of a planned chemical plant that drew protests. Click the link and read the whole thing, as they say.

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