The Unending Saga of Land Acquisition in West Bengal: When Enemies Make Strange Bedfellows

Anjan Chakrabarti 

How should land be taken from the peasant for the process of urbanisation (real estate, infrastructural development, etc.) and industrialisation? This has remained one of the enduring questions in the West Bengal political scenario for the last few years. This is not surprising considering the fact that ‘land acquisition’ remains one of the indispensable conditions of existence for securing, facilitating and expanding capitalist organisation of surplus along industrial lines.(1) Henceforth if industrial capitalism is the goal, then ‘land acquisition’ as an issue is set to hog the limelight in the foreseeable future.

Two apparently contesting positions on land acquisition have correspondingly surfaced, one forwarded by CPI(M) and the other by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The first argues that land be acquired directly by the state who then should deal with the developers while the second argues that it should be bought directly by the developers themselves. Interestingly, a third model of land acquisition has come to light in West Bengal whereby the state uses private agencies to acquire land from the farmers and then buy it back from those agencies for purposes it deems fit. This is the Vedic village model that caught negative attention with the case of land acquisition in the Rajarhat area of West Bengal. Scanning the three models of land acquisition I argue that, for all their suggested differences, they provide diverse kinds of conditions of existence for creating and expanding capitalist organisation of surplus. In the process, the models of land acquisition for the purpose of industrial capitalism signal different routes for facilitating uniform development logic of transition from agrarian society to an industrial capitalist society. In contrast, I contend that the language of resistance against land acquisition in West Bengal with its refusal to comply with the centrality of industrial capitalism suggests the possibility of a different and perhaps fourth model. This suggested way though entails adopting a fundamentally alternative way to envisage the relationship between agriculture and industry as compared to the above mentioned three models; it also calls for rethinking the present model of top down governance that prevents people from exercising the power to take any effective decision and action regarding their lived social life.

Moreover, our discussion reveals that TMC’s much vaunted model of land acquisition underlies a change in the strategy of ushering in industrial capitalism in West Bengal without in any manner contesting the logic of industrial capitalist development that one may argue was what the tumultuous protests against land acquisition in West Bengal signalled. That is, in proposing a switch from a state sponsored land acquisition policy to a market sponsored land acquisition policy, the TMC model calls for altering an important condition of existence for creating, securing and expanding the capitalist organisation of surplus. This is important to recognise because the much hyped ‘MATI’ slogan of TMC can be mistakenly misrecognised as a standpoint against the logic of capitalist industrial development. We want to argue here that nothing can be further from the truth. If its land acquisition policy is any indication, TMC’s position, notwithstanding its ‘pro-peasant’ and ‘pro-poor’ rhetoric, would have the effect of charting a different strategy for securing the march of industrial capitalism at a time when the social movements have de-facto put a halt to the current model of state sponsored land acquisition. It is thus not accidental that the TMC including its supreme leader are now going all out to convince the industrial captains (the capitalists) about the effectiveness of its path and that its stance in no way represents an anti-industrialisation or anti-capitalist policy. Evidently, it does not. It is in fact favourably disposed towards them.


The First Model of Land Acquisition: State Sponsored

This has been the dominant model of land acquisition in India thus far. The state directly acquires fragmented land from the peasants by compensating them or, as has happened in many cases, without doing so. Acquired land is reorganised into one or multiple bundles which are then marketed as exclusive and consolidated property to other state enterprises or to private agencies for their usage; the market for land acquisition is thus mediated by the state. Private land of the peasants and common property (land, resources, water, forest, etc.) are now turned into exclusive property of either state or private agencies.

With the advent of globalisation entailing the rapid expansion of private capitalist enterprises, this form of private-public partnership has deepened and gathered pace. It has almost become a norm for the state to acquire land for projects to be developed by private agencies. We can thus say that India inTransition and Development general and West Bengal in particular has been moving into a phase of consolidated privatisation of hitherto agricultural land in order to secure, facilitate and expand capitalist organisation of exploitation taking the material form of industrial expansion. It is not farfetched to say that the state sponsored model of land acquisition qua consolidated private property bundles constitute an indispensable condition of existence for the current form of industrialisation process unfolding in India.

However, in recent times, this state sponsored model of land acquisition has come under serious questioning from the direct stakeholders, namely the peasants (a loose term encompassing different groups related to agrarian economy). As events in Kalinganagar, Nandigram, Singur and Raigarh, to mention only a few cases, exemplified the spirited resistance of the peasants and their supporting groups have put a spanner on the seemingly smooth process of this model of land acquisition forcing a rethinking on the part of Indian government. While the state governments did use a range of repressive apparatus in trying to break the back of these resistance movements, the following realisation has perhaps dawned on the concerned political establishment: state sponsored model of land acquisition without adequate compensation has become practically very difficult in the current democratic set up of India. One then has to somewhat change the model of land acquisition so as to secure and facilitate the goal of capitalist industrial development which evidently is taken as sacrosanct and beyond any questioning.


The Second Model of Land Acquisition: Marketisation

The Indian government has proposed to somewhat shift the process of land acquisition policy such that the government will secure a larger portion of land while the minority portion will be bought by the private agencies. While there are host of regulatory mechanisms that have been proposed, one outstanding aspect is the assurance of adequate compensation (if not resettlement) in any land acquisition package.  While concerned lobbies and political parties are haggling over the exact proportion of this private-public division and modalities of compensation, Trinamool Congress has come out with another position.

In line with its ‘MA, MATI, MANUSH’ program, TMC suggests that the state should in no way be involved in any acquisition of land. Land has to be obtained through the process of direct exchange between buyers (private or state agencies) and sellers (the farmers); unmediated market is the solution proposed by TMC. The implication is that the developers and/or industrialists will have to buy the land directly from the farmers. Apparently, this model valorises ownership since it is the owner of land who will be legitimately accounted in the game of exchange. What remains unclear though is the status and predicament of other stakeholders related to land, say, for example, the agricultural workers. Will they be evicted without any kind of compensation? There are other deeper issues related to ‘land acquisition’ which we do not touch here.(2)

In this TMC model, it is not farfetched to imagine the emergence of a huge ‘brokerage’ land market in which ‘land acquiring’ private companies scout for land and try to create ‘private land bank’. Once acquired and consolidated, they are then parcelled out in various proportions to industrial enterprises or some other agencies, public and private. Given the rapid pace of India’s march towards industrial capitalism, TMC’s model of land acquisition is bound to facilitate the emergence of such a kind of agrarian land market and its consequent ‘private land bank’.

Does this solution impede the process of industrialisation and the associated capitalist organisation of surplus it helps create and expand? Hardly so, I contend. It simply modifies the land acquisition related condition of existence of capitalist organisation of surplus from state sponsored to market sponsored. Is the market solution a better solution for industrial capitalists in comparison to the state sponsored one? Which of the two processes of acquiring land is better for the farmers? Is state sponsored land bank better in comparison to private land bank?  Let us not address these important and topical questions here.


The Third Model of Land Acquisition:  Public-Private Partnership

The third position stems from a mixture of the first and second. The first position concerns the motive of the state agencies to acquire land. This may be driven by state’s overall plan of development that entails paving the way for the expansion of capitalist organisation of surplus which though is currently made difficult by state’s inability to acquire land directly from the peasants. This inability can be mitigated by the second position involving the presence of unmediated market for land with buyers and sellers facing off one another. These two moments are telescoped in this way: as part of an overall plan of the capitalist led industrial development the state government outsource the process of buying land to an agency who then as if emerges as a genuine buyer in the market to acquire land directly from the peasants only to hand it over to the state government. Two kinds of contracts rule this model of land acquisition – a contract between state and private agency of land buyer and between the latter and the peasants. The former may take the form of a written or unwritten contract while the second has to be written and legally ratified. While this special kind of private-public partnership complicates the process of land acquisition, it has two advantages for the state: (i) it is able to wash its hands off the process of land acquisition even as it is able to get access to land, and (ii) it avoids getting directly implicated in any anomalies arising from the unmediated market process such as cheating on prices, fudging papers, arm twisting the sellers and so on.  This is the Vedic Village Model and one can imagine multiple variations of my presented case.

Because the logic of Vedic Village Model telescopes features of the first two models of land acquisition, it has quite ironically landed both CPI(M) and TMC in one line and made them strange bedfellows. On one side, CPI(M) became once again exposed on its development policy of favouring land acquisition (by whatever means it seems now) for industrial capitalists while TMC’s cup of embarrassment is full when it became apparent that its policy of marketisation of land acquisition turned out to be the chief conduit for the state to acquire land and that too to fulfil the development agenda favoured by the CPI(M).


The Common Agenda of the Land Acquisition Models

Despite the differences between the land acquisition models, they exhibit a unified approach along the following lines:

(i) Openly or in silence, all the three models accept capitalist led industrial development as the motor of change and in that backdrop consider land acquisition as inevitable for the process of industrialisation. While CPI(M) and Congress are unabashed about its need, TMC remains somewhat ambiguous in its rhetoric though its policy of land acquisition leaves us with no interpretation other than being favourably disposed towards capitalist industrial development. While TMC has firmly opposed state sponsored land acquisition drive, it has not challenged land acquisition per se nor has it ruled out land acquisition for capitalist led industrial development. As such, if stretched to its limit, the different parties, for all their animosity, share the goal of industrial capitalist development. The difference boils down to the diverse strategies to be adopted to achieve that goal.

(ii) All the three models of land acquisition make sense only in the context of the following axiom: acceptance of the pre-given relations of verticality between a so-called forward looking industry and a backward looking agriculture leading to a top down development model of inexorable transition from agricultural society to an industrial society. Much as the TMC’s rhetoric would imply otherwise, its model of land acquisition seem to be accepting of this axiom.

(iii) Moreover, all the positions share this common denominator: none have till now accepted delegating to the concerned people the power to say no to any proposed development projects which of course is tantamount to the rejection of the supremacy and inexorability of the logic of capitalist led industrial development. Of course, people may very well decide to prefer the option of saying yes to relocation and favour industrial development in that area; valorising agriculture and agrarian life is just as problematical as valorising industry and industrial life. Till now, the matter has been placed in manner that presupposes an unambiguous yes to relocation, a rather mechanical presupposition that flows from the pre-determined logic of industrial capitalist development rather than from people’s right of self-determination to say yes to relocation and industrial project. The issue is not fundamentally about whether people have the right to say no to dislocation or yes to relocation but instead it is whether one is able to exercise that right or not. It is a freedom that has no validity except in its realisation. If implemented, this freedom of exercising options reclaims what the logic of (capitalist) development has denied to these societies: effective choice to the kind of social life that people want to lead. In this context, the social movements we have been witness to testifies in no uncertain terms a fierce struggle in one axis: who will have effective control over social life in terms of decisions and actions. Internalizing the ability to exercise the power to say no within any suggested policy paradigm would entail not only a shift in development policy. It would additionally radically alter the current organisation and constitution of policy making that hitherto has steadfastly retained its top down monarchist moorings which in turn operates by denying the people the required space for making choice including over the kind of social life they would want to lead. If the relevant conduits of exercising power to say no such as say through voting on development projects as in case of Raigarh in Maharashtra are not internalised within the land acquisition framework (which of course would resultantly drastically change too) then, no matter what we put on paper and what our intentions are, the power to say no remains in effect null and void in so far as the outcome is concerned. None of the land acquisition models that we know of internalises this option to exercise no.(3)


Vote Bank Relevance of ‘MATI’

TMC’s goal is clear. It is not to initiate a social revolution but to oust the CPI(M) from state power. Its politics is thus state centric in general and vote bank centric in particular. Correspondingly, it wants to control and limit any movements to serve its limited purpose. In this context, TMC has successfully carved out a place in West Bengal political space as the supposed champion of the peoples struggles against the Left Front sponsored policy of state sponsored land acquisition which it used with good effect to break the grip of CPI(M)’s dominance over the poor. I have discussed this in details in another write up in Radical Notes.(4)

Despite this success through the highly advertised pro-poor re-positioning of the TMC, I am here suggesting that its proposed land acquisition policy and its claim of representing these peoples’ struggles are contradictory in nature. The former I have argued suggests a pro-capitalist development model albeit through a different route while the latter indicates a rejection of the capitalist development model. How is TMC dealing with this contradiction? What is the role of its Land Acquisition model in this situation?

TMC led those movements which turned out to be directed against the state which incidentally is ruled by CPI(M) led Left Front. Against its stated objective of ousting CPI(M) from state power, this strategy is understandable because after all it was the CPI(M) which came to personify this state sponsored model of land acquisition.Dislocation and Resettlement A first glance all these social movements might suggest that people rejected state sponsored drive towards industrialisation. That is indeed true and the TMC’s success lay in cultivating and encapsulating this spirit of the social movements within its political slogan of ‘MATI’.

However, such an analysis when made has limited value that, if deemed as absolute and final, is perhaps purposefully done to incarcerate and circumscribe the language and aspiration of the movements. Obsession with state sponsored land acquisition obfuscates a deeper question that lay clearly at the heart of these movements. It pertains to the fact that the people were not just saying no to state sponsored land acquisition but to the very idea of giving up land and their forms of life for ensuring the march of industrial capitalism, a change which as it was proposed stood as something alien to their existence and hence summarily rejected. It was the very idea of land acquisition for industrial capitalism that is the bone of contention here; it was also about the process of acquiring land (the governance question) which surfaced as a question through the movements. One can read the social movements as signalling not a rejection of the form (state sponsored land acquisition) but the content (of land acquisition per se for industrial capitalism) itself. That is, the act of saying no to state sponsored development telescoped an aspiration and demand to have the power to say no to the idea of development as projected in the model of inexorable transition from agrarian society to an industrial society that, by its very logic, is supposed to be beyond any contestation.

Read in this light, TMC’s political strategy becomes evident: it is advertising the form as the content and in doing so trying to occult any proposed struggle over the content from the political space. That is, in its first stage, it wrapped CPI(M) into its critique of state sponsored model that captured the voice of the people’s immediate demand and now in its second stage is proposing a political solution calling for the replacement of CPI(M) with TMC so that this state sponsored land acquisition policy is rendered obsolete. However, its own alternative on the issue of land acquisition suggests that this in no way is a contestation of the content, that is, land acquisition furthering the logic of capitalist induced industrialisation process. Rather, it implies a change in strategy for enacting industrial capitalism in West Bengal that would involve a policy change in land acquisition from model 1 to models 2 and/or 3. Put bluntly, TMC’s model remains an apology of capitalist industrial development with its underlying relation of verticality between industry and agriculture that is based on a deeper logic of a devalued agriculture giving way to industrial society. No matter what it says on the contrary, its second model of ‘marketisation of land’ or the third model of ‘public-private partnership model of Vedic village’ can’t lead us to any other explanations than my suggested one.

This clearly reflects TMC’s vote bank strategy of ousting CPI(M) from state power. After all, state based politics is about winning control of state through elections. If its declared objective is limited to defeating CPI(M) in that plane, then it is rational for TMC to limit its political program to winning that control over the body of state. The CPI(M) made the blunder of its lifetime by aligning itself with a policy of state sponsored land acquisition that was rejected by the people through social movements. Having successfully clubbed CPI(M) with this highly unpopular state sponsored land acquisition policy TMC can now dream of fulfilling its objective of capturing state power. This is fine as far as it goes. However, those who are looking for any ‘revolutionary’ content in TMC need to take a step back from its rhetoric and give a quieter and deeper look at its actual policy of land acquisition. That policy is not only bent on occulting the content of social movement against land acquisition for industrial capitalism but by subsuming the content into the form it is veering towards obfuscating, wittingly or unwittingly, the ‘revolutionary’ content of the social movements as a whole. TMC’s ‘Leftism’ stumbles and falters in the face of this observation and the limitation of ‘MATI’ as symbolizing the ‘pro-poor’ and peasant friendly face of TMC starts becoming palpable.


Conclusion

Did the social movements against land acquisition imply a case for stasis? We don’t quite see it that way. At the minimum, we see these as packing a call to rethink and drop the idea of development from its moorings in a big bang shift that is top down and as if inexorably proceeding from a dismantling of agrarian society towards the creation of an industrial society. In contrast, these social movements perhaps encapsulate an aspiration to rethink development as an idea of community building (constituting both agricultural and industrial endeavours) rather than community destruction. They also signal a rejection of top down control and governance of peoples’ social life whereby the people are excluded from making effective choices regarding the trajectory of their social life. Set against this background, TMC’s effort to mask the contradiction with the help of its ‘pro-poor’ rhetoric that is at the same time supported by a land acquisition policy which tries to circumscribe the scope of the social movements against land acquisition within a simplified movement against state sponsored model of land acquisition has its limitations. This is because the contradiction involving people’s demand for control of their social life, including economic life, that involves a rejection of the inexorable logic of industrial capitalist development and that of a land acquisition policy (model 2 and 3) favouring industrial capitalist development is real and not going to fade away any time soon. Given that all sides are, notwithstanding their different routes, favourably disposed towards industrial capitalist development in West Bengal, the schism between the suggested policies of the political elite (no matter their diverse forms) and those demanded by the social movements would guarantee the persistence of the question of land acquisition in the body politic of West Bengal in the foreseeable future. Change in state power from CPI(M) to TMC that at this moment looks likely will not settle this issue any time soon.

Notes:

(1) By capitalist organisation of surplus we mean the process through which capitalists appropriate and distribute the performed surplus labour of the workers. Different economic, cultural, political and natural processes provide diverse conditions of existence for this process of surplus labour to be performed, appropriated, distributed and received which following Resnick and Wolff (Knowledge and Class: A Critique of the Political Economy, Chicago University Press, 1987) we name as class. Class therefore refers to processes relating to particular form of performance, appropriation, distribution and receipt of surplus labour. While numerous organisations of class processes (capitalist, feudal, slave, independent, communist, communitic) co-exist in an economy, our focus in this paper remains capitalist class process or capitalist organisation of surplus. Depending upon the effects from varied conditions of existence, the capitalist organisation of surplus emerges in diverse forms across time and space; just as the changing capitalist organisation of surplus will constitute the condition providing processes; class and non-class processes overdetermine one another and impacted by their contradictory influences and effects on one another the processes tend to procreate or wither in a never ending state of flux. ‘Land acquisition’ is one such condition of existence whose varied forms will have its constitutive effect on the kind of capitalist organisation of surplus that will emerge; similarly the changing capitalist organisation of surplus, say, resulting from globalisation and increased competition, has greatly impacted the nature of ‘land acquisition’ and the debate occurring with respect to it. For an analysis of transition and development in India from a class focused overdeterminist perspective, see Anjan Chakrabarti and Stephen Cullenberg (Transition and Development in India, Routledge, 2003), and for an account of land acquisition and dislocation see Anjan Chakrabarti and Anup Dhar (Dislocation and Resettlement in Development: From Third World to World of the Third, Routledge, 2009).

(2) See Anjan Chakrabarti and Anup Dhar (Dislocation and Resettlement in Development: From Third World to World of the Third, Routledge, 2009) for details.

(3) See Anjan Chakrabarti and Anup Dhar (Dislocation and Resettlement in Development: From Third World to World of the Third, Routledge, 2009) for details of this alternative way.

(4) Anjan Chakrabarti. ‘The Return of the Repressed: Explanation of the Left Front defeat in West Bengal‘. Thursday, 21 May 2009, Radical Notes

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