The decision by Tata Motors to move the Nano small car project out of West Bengal is a setback for development policy in the State, one for which the Trinamool Congress as well as the political parties, organisations, individuals, and people in high places who colluded with Mamata Banerjee are entirely responsible. The project was significant on several counts. It signified a new industrial focus, representing, in the words of M.S. Swaminathan, “a need to create greater avenues for employment in the industrial and services sectors” on top of “accelerated agricultural progress triggered by land reform.” In a context where State governments are turning increasingly to private capital for large-scale productive investments, the high-profile automobile project became emblematic of West Bengal’s new industrial policy. The technical literature is clear that while the employment multiplier is significant for manufacturing industry in general, the effect is particularly sharp in the auto industry. Secondly, the Nano project illustrates the complexity of decisions regarding land use conversion. The 2007 land use policy document of the Left Front government states its determination “to make land use policy an instrument to improve the livelihoods and living standards of the people, while protecting and conserving our rich agro-ecological and environmental heritage.” But industry cannot be built offshore or in the air. In a State where the aggregate share of long-term fallows, cultivable waste, pasture, and unculturable land (outside Kolkata) is less than 1.5 per cent of land area, to prohibit entirely the conversion of agricultural land to industrial purposes is, as Amartya Sen observed in a recent interview, “ultimately self-defeating.” Thirdly, Singur represented a new policy of compensation for land acquired by the State government. Monetary compensation was to be paid not only to landowners, but also to sharecroppers and manual workers. The final package took into account the value of land not at the time of original acquisition, but, as suggested in an article in this newspaper, by a norm that reflected the “potential increase in the value of the land” from conversion to industrial use. Land-losers were offered commercial premises in the plant complex. And the Tatas offered new technical training to 800 youth from the locality.
Given these facts, political history will judge Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress to be the most irresponsible and negativist legislative opposition in any State. This party’s modus operandi has been to raise bizarre demands and level wild accusations, to refuse to negotiate issues in any reasonable detail, and to create malignant pockets of lawlessness and institutional breakdown. Trinamool’s own character and the nature of its allies outside the Assembly — ranging from Naxalites through communal elements to free-floating NGOs and individuals — ruled out any sensible development alternative or agenda. The final package announced by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee gave the naysayers an honourable opportunity to claim that their agitation had helped the land-losers and the people of Singur get better terms. But such a sober response was beyond this coalition of the irresponsibles. The latest statement of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, signed by Medha Patkar and others, which hails the withdrawal of the project as “a victory of the people’s movement supported by the political parties, especially the Trinamool Congress and SUCI, with other people’s organisations,” unwittingly blows the whistle on how such elements are utterly unanswerable to the people of a locality for the anarchy and disruption they leave in their wake. The people of West Bengal will no doubt draw appropriate political conclusions from this unsavoury episode.