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Omens from Nandigram

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

West Bengal has been at the centre of a persistent storm over the acquisition of land for supposedly reasonable developmental objectives. The confrontation between the police and residents of Nandigram, who have resisted the acquisition of their land, has brought sharply into focus the extreme sensitivity of land-related issues, on the one hand, and the heavy-handedness that the state has tended to bring to bear on them, on the other. But attention must focus also on the broader implications of the episode in West Bengal. In terms of the metrics currently in vogue, faster growth with greater inclusiveness, these may well be ominous.
Three critical links in the political and administrative chain appear to have broken down in precipitating last week's confrontation. First, the CPI(M)'s internal intelligence system failed in bringing the depth of the anti-acquisition sentiment in Nandigram to the notice of its leaders. This is, after all, the most essential function of a political party in a democratic framework. Indian parties are often, and justifiably, criticised for having abandoned this function and allowed their grassroots to rot even as parties have become more leader-oriented and less bottom-up in their approach, but the Communists have generally been seen as the significant exception. Their well-organised cadres were seen as a reliable means of two-way communication between the people and the politburo, a key reason for their stranglehold on political office in West Bengal. But, as Nandigram demonstrates, this is not always the case. The priority that the chief minister put on the project was enough to energise the party cadres into pushing it forward, regardless of the resistance. They did not think it necessary to keep him informed of the growing significance of that resistance, which would have at least opened up the possibility of a mutually acceptable course correction.
Second, the working arrangement between the party and the government seems to have degenerated to a situation of total capture of the latter by the former. Even if the party cadres were painting a false picture of the situation on the ground in pursuit of their own interests, it was clearly the responsibility of the district administration to warn the state government about the precariousness of the stand-off. Whether they chose not to, or did and were ignored will come out in an objective process of inquiry, which is clearly warranted. It is extraordinary that the administration and police should have been prevented from entering Nandigram for two months, with no way of enforcing the civil administration's writ over the area. Either way""tainted or ineffectual""the structure comes across as inadequate.
Third, the fluid nature of the links between land ownership and cultivation seems to have been ignored by the administration. Even today, the state is commended for its successful land redistribution programmes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But, that was then. Two decades later, a new class of tenant cultivators appears to have emerged, renting land from those who received the redistributed titles. These people face the double whammy of displacement without compensation, which is paid to the formal owners of the land. The government's emphasis on ownership for the cultivators appears to have stopped with one generation, while reality demands that the issue be paid continuous attention. From a broader national perspective, land acquisition lies at the heart of the "growth with inclusiveness" strategy. All these mechanisms are critical to its successful implementation. West Bengal's recent experience is a reason for some pessimism on this score.


First Published: Tue, March 20 2007. 00:00 IST