Bengal’s land acquisition policy hurdle in its image makeover attempt

Citing growing unemployment in the state, the opposition parties accuse the TMC of creating obstacles for the industrial growth required for generating employment.

Mamata Banerjee
I'll be back: Mamata Banerjee has assured her supporters that she will soon return to the campaign trail.

The Trinamool Congress government’s land acquisition policy is getting in the way of its attempt to shed the anti-industry charges it has been facing since coming to power in 2011 riding on Singur-Nandigram land movement.

Lack of industrialisation is one of the key poll planks of the BJP in West Bengal with the saffron party leaders often drawing comparison of the state with the BJP-ruled Gujarat.

If voted to power in next assembly polls, the BJP would turn Bengal into Gujarat emulating its “growth model” so that youth of the state would not have to migrate to other states for jobs, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has been reiterating in his campaign rallies.

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The TMC-backed anti-land acquisition movement led to the scrapping of Tatas’ Nano car factory project at Singur in Hooghly district and Indonesia-based Salim group’s SEZ project at Nandigram in East Midnapore district.

Citing growing unemployment in the state, the opposition parties accuse the TMC of creating obstacles for the industrial growth required for generating employment.

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Forcing Tata’s to shift its Nano plant out of West Bengal was the “biggest blunder” because it has acted as a deterrent for other industrialists too, said senior BJP leader Mukul Roy, who incidentally had also taken part in the 2006 Singur movement as a TMC leader then.

Many farmers in Nandigram and Singur, who had taken part in the anti-land acquisition movement, also rue their decision. In Singur, many farmers have even privately started selling their farm land that the government had returned after taking back from Tatas.

Even Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had recently admitted that many farmers were not harvesting the land which remained untilled for almost a decade. “Around 792 farmers had harvested the land during 2018-19. That number has now decreased. Many are selling off their lands at high price,” she said.

TMC’s Nandigram MLA Suvendu Adhikari has already joined the BJP while the party’s Singur MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya is also showing sign of rebellion.

To turn the table in its favour, the TMC is now trying hard to change its alleged anti-industry image coining the slogan “agriculture is our pride, industry is our wealth.”

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“Mamata was never against industry. She was only against forcible acquisition of land from the unwilling farmers,” said Panchayats and Rural development minister Subrata Mukherjee.

The state government has announced an agro-industrial park in Singur on 11 acres of land. The chief minister last week claimed that her government has also approached Ford Motor Company to set up an unit at Singur.

Official sources said Banerjee personally met Alfred Ford, a director of Ford Motor Co with the proposal at the headquarters of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) in Mayapur. Alfred Ford is a Krishna devotee inducted into Iskcon in the 1970s.

The officials, however, in private say the government’s industrial push will not be enough to attract big industries unless it changes its land acquisition policy. They say 6,000 acres of land are available for industry in the land bank of West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC). But these are mostly small plots not suitable for large industries, officials point out.

In a densely populated agrarian state, acquiring vast land for any big industry is bound to face resistance. Industrialists want the government to mediate with the land owners and buy land for them.

The Mamata Banerjee government, however, is against acting as a “middleman” and wants industrialists to directly negotiate with the land owners.

Reiterating her government’s policy of not acquiring land owned by people, the chief minister on Monday (December 28) said no one would lose land for making Deocha Pachami coal block in Birbhum district operationalise.

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“The area currently earmarked for the coal block is uninhabited and nobody owns any land there, so there is no problem,” she said at an administrative review meeting in Bolpur.

Deocha Pachami is the world’s second-largest coal block with an estimated reserve of 2.1 billion tonnes. It was allocated to West Bengal by the Centre in June, 2018.

The coal block has the investment potential of ₹12,000 crore and is likely to generate 1.5 lakh jobs. But for tapping its full potential, the government will need the entire block spread over 9.7 km land, which will lead to eviction of several villages and destruction of forests, integral to tribal customs and ways of life.

Local villagers under the banner of the Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA) are against the project fearing that they will lose their lands.

In the face of the protest, the government has decided to make only a part of the project operationalise as of now to avoid any confrontation over land acquisition.

It’s this dilemma over land acquisition that has forced the state government to focus more on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. West Bengal has the second highest number of MSMEs in the country — 88.67 lakh units.

The MSME sector growth however has done little to earn an industry-friendly tag for the TMC government. For that, it needs big ticket investments.

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