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.
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.
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,"
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.
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
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
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.
"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
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
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.
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
But trouble is
brewing for the SEZ at Nayachar too.
Environmentalists have questioned the setting up
of a petrochemical SEZ in a coastal regulation
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in