Nero fiddled as Rome burned. Posterity has found at least two flaws in this proverb. First, the violin was invented long after Nero was buried, so he could not possibly have fiddled with a fiddle. Second, there is scant historical support for the claim that Nero was responsible for the fire that engulfed Rome in AD 64.
Be that as it may, this author, despite his oft-expressed admiration for the industrialization drive by the West Bengal government, was reminded of the fiddling Nero legend as he learnt to his dismay that dignitaries from the Writers’ Buildings were busy with a film festival when a civil war was raging in the state. Unlike the Nero episode, moreover, the margin of error in the present case report appears to be slim.
Following hard, as the incident does, on the heels of the Rizwanur Rahman tragedy, one’s confidence in the cultured Bengali middle-class rulers takes a serious jolt. Less than a few weeks ago, after asserting gleefully to the media that there was little point in discussing the venue for meeting Rahman’s unhappy mother since she had expressed her unwillingness to conduct any dialogue with the powers that be, the government performed a magnificent U-turn the very next day under public pressure. Further, it dragged its feet endlessly until the heat of public anger assumed nuke proportions over the inaction concerning senior police officials despite strong circumstantial evidence pointing towards serious irregularities in their records. And last but not the least, the charade of a single-member judicial inquiry into the cause of Rahman’s demise which was withdrawn only when all other murky bylanes by which the government tried to save its face turned into blind alleys.
Let us go back, however, to the root of this government’s current travails. A succinct summary of the problem is contained in an article published by Prakash Karat in People’s Democracy and reprinted in Rediff News on March 23, 2007. To quote Karat: “As for those who want the Left Front government to give up its industrialization policy, they will be disappointed. West Bengal will protect and further develop agriculture; the gains of land reforms will not be undermined but the emphasis on industrialization will not be given up. The long years of de-industrialization has (sic) to be reversed. Balanced economic development requires industrialization within the capitalist framework too. If some argue that small and medium industries are sufficient, the CPI-M does not agree. Large-scale units, particularly in manufacturing, are necessary.”
Wonder of wonders! A principal spokesman of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) states in writing that West Bengal pursued a path of de-industrialization and that the long years of such (erroneous') policy now called for correction in the interests of balanced economic growth. He even seeks justification for the party’s new-found wisdom in evil capitalist frameworks. But cynicism apart, the most crucial assessment of the situation is contained in the last two sentences of the quote. Small and medium industries will not cure the state of the malaise it is afflicted with. Large-scale manufacturing is the call of the day.
What, one may ask, is so sacred about largeness' Presumably, Karat believes that the larger the size of an industry, the more potent its employment-generating capacity. It is too early to pronounce judgment on Karat’s viewpoint, but one finds here a clear admission of the fact that the rulers have, at last, had second thoughts about the bucolic charms of pre-capitalist agriculture.
Large industries, assuming that they can be lured back to this land of industrial waste, require large plots of land. According to a Webcon Survey commissioned by the government, the total land area occupied by around 500 sick industries in the neighbourhood of Calcutta is 41,079 acres. Critics of the policies followed by the government have repeatedly pointed out that since this unused land is available, there is no need to harass farmers.
This argument is twice damned. First, though the total sick industry land mass is impressively large, the plots that constitute the whole are not contiguous. Major industries cannot be built on disconnected plots. A clear example can be found in Hindustan Motors, which occupies a contiguous land area of 700 acres, though it has been observed that a part of this land lies unused. Hindustan Motors produces around 20,000-30,000 units per year. On the other hand, the Tatas plan to turn out 250,000 units annually in the course of the next three years and around 500,000 per year eventually. Small, isolated plots will not serve the purpose of meeting the Tata needs, and unless such requirements are met, the employment scenario will probably remain grim.
A second reason why land occupied by sick industries cannot be offered to willing industries is that they fall under the purview of the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction, which, in turn is attached to the Union finance ministry. The BIFR is the final authority that decides, following litigations and other delays, the auction price that needs to be paid for the land to be transferred from a sick industry to the newcomers. This price must cover, amongst other things, the cost of paying off the dues of creditors as well as displaced workers. Apart from the time cost of waiting, the financial cost too is astronomical. To give an example, it took nine years to release the land occupied by Jay Engineering Works in Anwar Shah Road (where the South City Complex stands) and the price paid was Rs 2 crore 33 lakhs per acre. Few industrialists would willingly bear the costs of acquiring sick industry land. It is understandable why the government short circuited the process for the Tatas and paid a mere Rs 11 lakh per acre in Singur.
The two cited reasons leave no alternative to agricultural land acquisition for mass industrialization. Yet, even after factoring out obvious differences between prime metropolitan plots and rural land, the price differential pointed out above between Anwar Shah Road and Singur clearly indicates that the farmers have reasons to be peeved. Therefore, while events were in progress in Singur, the landowners of Nandigram were watching in wary discomfort. Needless to say, the opposition parties added fuel to their anguish. It needs no more explanation why the uprising took place in January, 2007, at the slightest hint of possible land-grabbing to accommodate a special economic zone.
What remains unexplained though is at whose behest the police resorted to firing on March 14. As Karat clarifies in his article, around 2,500 CPI(M) workers were driven out of the area between January and March. Once again, the aggressors could not have achieved this on their own. They obviously had the Opposition’s blessings. The question that looms large in the horizon, however, is whether the police would have fired in a reverse situation. The home ministry should ask its own conscience, assuming that it has one in its possession, if a single round would have been fired by policemen had 2,500 Trinamul or Congress supporters been evicted by the CPI(M) cadre. This question assumes diabolical significance in view of the latest incident. When armed CPI(M) workers came back to re-occupy lost ground and fired on unarmed marchers, the police merely stood by and watched. And ministers attended a film festival.
Despite the horrifying incongruities of the situation, the enormous tragedy lies in the fact that no voter in his right state of mind would believe in the existence of a party in West Bengal that could be relied upon to replace the present rulers. However revolting the events plaguing this society, one is tempted to observe, like Antony in Julius Caesar, that while the government’s enemies would find faults with its irresponsible acts, it amounts to cold modesty when friends point them out.