Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nano-vision II

Like my regard for Ratan Tata has risen manyfold by his marvellous handling of the Press Conference on the Nano pull-out, I was extremely impressed by the panel discussion that was taking place simultaneously on the Bengali News Channel – STAR Ananda – which was far more objective and balanced than the very extreme dismal view of most mainline English News Channels. It was rather refreshing to hear the 2 economists (Abhirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Insitute and Dipankar Dasgupta also ex ISI) and 3 politicians (Subrata Mukherjee of the Congress, Saifuddin Chowdhury former CPM MP - now formed his own party PDS and, surpringly - Nepal BHattacharya - from the CPM too) and a lawyer - Arunava Ghosh - reason the entire saga that was played out over the last 2 years very dispassionately. The politicians, perhaps - realising that a strident stand at this juncture would not go down well with the people, also took a very moderte position. But that too indicates a maturity and sense of responsibity one does not normally expect from them.

The announcement didn't come as a surprise - it was the timing and the manner ( the 'when' and the 'how') that most people were waiting for. It was also of interest to many, how the CPM would react to - what would be definitely seen as - a snub on their face.

In all this drama, one major issue was forgotten : whether mere compensation was good enough to ensure the long-term livelihood of the poor marginal farmer deprived of his land, who didn’t have the competence to find an alternate source of employment or income. As Dipankar Dasgupta pointed out, it was not as if they were being offered a compensation based on the NPV of their future streams of earning. The principles of computing the compensation was also not transparent. What was required is a comprehensive rehabilitation package - not just a 'lumpsum' compensation, which was bound to disappear in no time - left in the hands of the poor farmer.



Abhirup Sarkar cited the example of his house-hold help – who comes from that area. She was adamant that she wouldn’t part with her land for any amount of compensation because she wouldn’t know how to deploy the money to see her family through, at least, the rest of her life. (Read Abhirup Sarkar's Interview on Development vs Land Acquisition in the HBL by clicking here)

One politician, - Subroto Mukherjee of the Congress, made another pertinent rejoinder to Ratan Tata’s remark that, the land acquisition was purely a matter between “ the government and the farmers” and the Tatas had no role to play in that. Subroto said that, when even a common man does a “search” before buying a plot of land for building a house – it was difficult to believe that the Tatas didn’t do a "due diligence" before building a plant over 1000 acres.

He was also surprised that, it took both the government and the Tatas 2 years to realize that this won’t be a smooth ride. Therefore, he found it a little odd to hear Ratan Tata to say today, he can’t run an operation with police protection, when that is exactly what they have been doing since the beginning of the project.

On the issue of “governance” all of them agreed that, it was unrealistic to expect the CPM to change their own administrative style built over 3 decades overnight and selectively.


It was again characteristic of the CPM leadership to advise the CM (as reported in the Calcutta newspapers this morning) – “to be firm and avoid being apologetic while presenting his case, and to tell Tata the land issue was the same everywhere and the company would be disregarding popular opinion in Bengal if it pulled out”. That is exactly what Buddhadeb told him – adding he would be making a “mistake” in pulling out.

But, the true colours of the CPM came out in calling for a Bandh next Saturday to protest against the Tata pullout. We may have another Nandigram just waiting to happen as the cadres gather their fire-power - post the Pujas or even before that.

Another sane voice, which emerged was that of Nirupam Sen – the Industries Minister. I thought, he presented the West Bengal governments side of the story very cogently with a humility that is rarely seen in a Marxist. Later, he was quoted to have said " I don't feel like living in West Bengal myself".

But, one question still remains open: what will happen to the 1000 acres of acquired land, which has been rendered non-arable by dumping tons of fly-ash to raise the ground for construction? Even Ratan Tata has maintained a studied silence over it. The land, which has been leased to the Tatas for 99 years, cannot be re-claimed unless the Tatas surrender it back to the government - which one doubts if it ever will.

In a dangerous game of political brinkmanship - all sides overplayed their cards. I, therefore, blame all 3 players (CPM, Trinamul and also the Tatas) for the final (?) outcome. While Mamata's methods may have been reprehensible and her personal style unacceptable to many of us - we cannot forget that she is also a product of a system. In condemning her (which she more than deserves) we are only attacking the symptoms but not the disease. She is merely a manifestation of a malaise, the purging of which is bound to be a very painful and time-consuming process. It is easy to say that, the ultimate loser is Bengal, which is undeniable. But, it could also be true that Bengal isn't ready yet to take that leap into the future.

I had written about this in an earlier post (Nano-Vision I - Click here to read) and I still feel that, we haven't heard the last word on Nano in Singure yet.