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    South Asia
     Nov 17, 2007
Indian villagers resist corporate land grab
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Nandigram in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal is in the eye of a storm again. Barely eight months after police firing left dead scores of villagers protesting the acquisition of their land to establish an Indonesian-developed Special Economic Zone (SEZ), armed Communist Party goons recaptured control of several villages in Nandigram over the weekend after unleashing violence on its people.

Violence in Nandigram - a cluster of villages 75 miles southwest of Kolkata - has claimed at least 34 lives since January. Trouble



erupted when West Bengal's communist government - since 2002 it has become increasingly business-friendly and has embraced economic reforms to attract investment in industry - decided to set up a giant petrochemical SEZ to be developed by Indonesia's Salim Group. Land for the SEZ was to be acquired from 29 villages, most of which are in Nandigram.

But many of Nandigram's residents were reluctant to part with their land and fearing forced evictions by the government decided to resist. A Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC, literally "Land Eviction Resistance Committee") was formed, backed by a ragtag group of local farmers, opposition political parties and Maoists.

With the Bengal government bent on pressing ahead with the land acquisition, and the BUPC equally set on resisting it, the stage was set for confrontation.

Since January, villagers have blocked roads and built barricades to keep out the local administration. Villages became "out of bounds" for the administration. The BUPC was in control of much of Nandigram and the government's authority no longer extended there.

Then in March, things spiraled out of control. A 5,000-strong police force - along with armed men believed to be affiliated with the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) - converged on Nandigram to wrest control of the villages and to silence protesting villagers. About 14 protesters were killed and 71 wounded in the police firing. Clearly, the police were shooting to kill - the bullets had all hit the dead above the waists.

The planned violence unleashed on Nandigram was condemned not only by opposition political parties but also by sections of the CPI-M as well as the party's allies in the ruling coalition in Bengal. Under pressure, Bengal's Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya was forced to scrap plans for the Nandigram SEZ.

But while the violence in Nandigram earlier this year was over the SEZ land grab, this past week's upheaval was really a turf battle between CPI-M cadres keen to recapture Nandigram and the Trinamool Congress, the main opposition party in Bengal, which is backing the BUPC. The villagers were caught in the crossfire of that battle.

Some believe that since the recent violence was really a battle for political turf, its impact is limited. President of the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India, Venugopal Dhoot, is one of those. "Nandigram is too small an area to affect the entire state," he said, adding that he saw "no reason to revise forecasts of investment flowing into Bengal over the [next] five years". "We believe that the state has the potential to grow at 12% annually on a sustained basis. It is this view which is prompting businessmen to pump money into Bengal," he said.

But Nandigram's impact is being felt beyond the economic field. It is believed to be behind the recent softening in the stance of the communists on the India-US nuclear deal.

The deal had run aground with the communists objecting to the excessive India-US embrace and the restrictions the deal would place on India's nuclear weapons program. But now the communists have given the government the green signal to engage in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On the defensive following the public outcry against their disastrous crackdown on Nandigram, the communists have been forced to climb down.

Officials in Bengal would like to believe that Nandigram's protest has "been ended for the foreseeable future". The "fitting response" of the state to Nandigram's protesters and the "liberation of Nandigram from the clutches of the BUPC" has sent out "a strong signal that attempts to disturb law and order in the state and to disrupt development projects will not be tolerated by the government," a senior official in West Bengal's Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC), the state's nodal agency for the promotion of industry, told Asia Times Online.

Not everyone is as optimistic. "The ongoing conflict in Nandigram might no longer be about industrialization or how land ought to be acquired to facilitate such development," but its impact "will be felt on investment and the pace of industrialization beyond Nandigram, in other parts of Bengal for certain and perhaps elsewhere in the country as well," a senior official at the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), a business and industry body in eastern and northeastern India, told Asia Times Online.

Going on to explain the reason for the Nandigram violence's ripple effects, the ICC official said, "Nandigram has become the symbol of protest by the powerless against the powerful, of the small farmer against big industry. Nandigram has become synonymous with successful opposition to government policies supportive of big industry. Farmers and activists will be encouraged by the success at Nandigram," he said.

Besides, "Nandigram is a reminder of the continuing opposition that investors in SEZs, mining companies, etc face in India, of the continuing problems they can expect to face with regard to acquisition of land. And to many investors Nandigram represents not just Bengal but vast swathes of India as well," he pointed out.

Indeed, protest against land acquisition for SEZs and investment projects extend beyond Nandigram. Last year, a confrontation similar to the one at Nandigram occurred in Singur, in Bengal, where the government was acquiring land for Tata Motors' small car project. Farmers backed by opposition political parties resisted the forcible acquisition of their land for the project, but the resistance was ruthlessly crushed and the first car is due to roll out of the Tata plant soon.

In the eastern state of Orissa, South Korean steelmaker Pohang Steel Company's (POSCO's)dreams of setting up a US$12 billion 12-million-ton-capacity steel plant is currently being fiercely challenged by thousands of villagers who would be displaced for the project.

Over the past two years, villagers have barricaded their land to prevent company officials from setting foot there. Recently, four POSCO officials who were abducted by villagers were freed only after local police assured them that the POSCO officials would not enter the area again. So far only a very small fraction of the land required for the project has been handed over by the government to POSCO.

Scores of projects across the country that involve acquisition of land are also in trouble.

Investors in Bengal have reportedly been closely watching the events. Besides the violence at Singur, Nandigram and other parts of the state, a wave of strikes has also got them thinking. Bengal has witnessed five major shutdowns this year. The latest was this week when the opposition called for a shutdown to protest the government's handling of the crisis in Nandigram. Incidentally, information technology companies, which have hitherto stayed away from strikes, shut their shops too this week.

"Bengal has seen too many bandhs [closures] in a very short duration," said Goutam Sengupta, chief operating officer of Videocon India. Videocon has three factories and a SEZ in the state, with three more in the pipeline. "Bandhs project a very negative image of the state. Our confidence in Bengal hasn't been eroded at all until now, but it could happen if the situation persists."

Government officials seem reluctant to recognize the growing doubts among investors about putting their money in Bengal. The WBIDC official said that the Bengal government's decision to shift the SEZ from Nandigram cannot be seen as a failure but an example of its willingness to act to facilitate the setting up of the SEZ. Its recent "police action" too, he says, will signal to investors the government's commitment to maintaining law and order.

But things aren't quite running according to plan for the Bengal government. Its decision to relocate the petrochemical SEZ from Nandigram to Nayachar, an island 150 kilometers from Kolkata, has run into trouble. Since Nayachar is land that belongs to the government and largely uninhabited, the government figured that setting up the SEZ there would entail neither land acquisition nor population displacement.

But trouble is brewing for the SEZ at Nayachar too. Environmentalists have questioned the setting up of a petrochemical SEZ in a coastal regulation zone.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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