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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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CARING FOR THE FIELDS OF GOLD

No one who has known him for long would think of Sadhan Pande as the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s mole in the Trinamool Congress. Inside the state assembly and outside, he has been among the loudest critics of the Marxists. If he now supports Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s industrialization drive, he is obviously convinced that this is the right strategy for Bengal’s development.

So Pande did the unthinkable for a leader in his party. He stood up to Mamata Banerjee and told her that she was wrong. He told her that the party’s opposition to the Tata group’s proposed automobile project at Singur was wrong and that it would brand the party as “anti-development”. This is no indication, though, that many more in the opposition parties will immediately follow Pande’s example.

Quite the contrary. It is a safer bet that Mamata Banerjee would increasingly raise the pitch of her opposition to industrialization projects and to the acquisition of land that would be needed for them. This would be so regardless of the actual facts.

Take, for instance, their opposition to the Salim group’s projects in South 24 Parganas district. All the proposed projects taken together would require 40,000 acres. That may appear to be lots of land, but the total is actually less than one per cent of the agricultural land in the district. In fact, all the proposed industrial and urbanization projects taken together would involve only a small amount of farmland in Bengal. The projects would create thousands of jobs and trigger a whole new range of economic activities, as it happened in and around Durgapur in the Sixties and in Haldia in the Nineties. Even so, they may not be the answer to the state’s unemployment problem.

There is no disputing that Bengal needs new industrial projects. The state’s urbanization level is still quite low in comparison with that in most of the advanced states. One should thus ask for more, and not less, of such projects. The only valid opposition to them could come if the government fails to compensate the land-losers adequately and to provide for rehabilitation projects.

But, after all, even if such projects come up, agriculture will continue to be the main livelihood of most of the people. Despite the new urbanization projects, many more people will live in the villages than in cities and in towns. It is not just a question of Bengal’s food security; ultimately, the focus on agriculture is a matter of jobs and economic security of a greater number of people.

Somehow, the importance of renewal in agriculture has been lost in the current debate on industrialization. It is true that the people do not make enough money from agriculture. It is also true that an expanding family cannot permanently depend on land, simply because the supply of land, unlike that of labour and capital, is finite. All this should have prompted the government to do more for agriculture, because a majority of the people will continue to depend on it for many years to come.

The opposition parties would do the farmers a lot of good if, instead of opposing the acquisition of land for industries, they clamour for corrective steps in agriculture. Everyone agrees that the biggest problem the farmers face is low prices for their produce. The government seems to have thrown up its hands in despair, leaving things to the ubiquitous market.

But the farmers know it is not the market but the middleman that is the problem. For all its domination of rural politics, the leftists have done little to protect the farmers from the rapacious middlemen who force the farmers to sell their produce cheap. Worse, the little infrastructure that had been there for agricultural marketing has practically collapsed over the years.

Traditionally, the government provided two kinds of support to the farmers, either directly or through its agencies. It helped the farmers procure quality seeds at moderate prices and it helped them get remunerative prices through the agricultural marketing cooperatives. While the leftists used their land reforms to ensure the sharecroppers’ right to land and fair farm wages, the value of such benefits was bound to decrease if agriculture itself became unprofitable.

The agriculture department is the largest of government departments in Bengal, having its offices and extension officers in each block and sometimes also in panchayat areas. These used to be the most visible signs of the government’s presence in rural Bengal. They still are because the offices continue to be there. But their activity and importance have gradually dropped to the minimal. The babus in these offices now live and work under the shadow of the middlemen who have taken over the functions of the agricultural extension officers. In most places, this works like an axis of evil and the farmers are helpless before its might. The farmers have little choice but to depend on the middlemen for seeds, fertilizers and all other inputs.

As for the cooperatives, the less said the better. Except for urban housing co-operatives, it has been a story of dismal failure for the cooperative movement in Bengal. The farmers, who needed them most, have been the hardest hit. Once again, the cooperatives surrendered their role and power to the middlemen. What has the almighty Marxist party done to prevent this' Very little, because the middlemen simply turned Marxists’ allies. In a sense, the unscrupulous village trader and the local party boss joined hands in order to sabotage the government and its rural institutions.

Bengal must have new industries and new urban centres of growth by all means, despite the social and political turmoil that is bound to come with them. But there could be far greater turmoil and destabilization in future if agriculture and farmers are left to the looters in the villages.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has taken the cues for many of his reformist ideas from China. The farmers’ protest at Singur over the automobile project would have been a familiar story to a Chinese peasant. The Chinese government now admits that the number of protests, demonstrations and even violent clashes over the acquisition of land for industries increased to 74,000 in 2004 from merely 10,000 a decade ago. But, all that did not prompt the Chinese to stop or stagger its industrialization/urbanization drives.

The Chinese leaders, however, could not ignore the protests. They have now sought to tackle the problem by unfolding a programme for the “new socialist countryside”. The whole exercise, outlined by the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, at the National People’s Congress this March, is aimed at containing social unrest by renewing agriculture and village life. It is a kind of “back to the villages” strategy that has both economic and political connotations.

In a series of changes in rural policy, the federal government in Beijing abolished agricultural tax and other local fees, increased investment in rural areas, increased prices of farm produce and revitalized the cooperative sector. And the effect of the changes has been quite dramatic. In a country where massive migrations to the cities were the norm for the past two decades, and where half the population is estimated to be living in cities by 2020, there is now a reverse tide back to the villages. So much so that in many of the new industrial areas, the village-bound former labourers have caused a labour shortage. The hardships of migrant lives and low-paid industrial work are one reason for this return to the villages. The other is the new opportunities being created there.

Bengal is not China and Bhattacharjee is not the prime minister of India. He is not free — he does not have the resources — to do many of the things that Wen Jiabao can. But the point about the Chinese example is that the zeal for industrialization/urbanization must not be allowed to push agriculture and rural life into governmental oblivion. Bhattacharjee’s Bengal, like Wen’s China, needs both new industries and new ways in agriculture.

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