Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Breaking the Singur impasse

Editorial in today's The Statesman

The Singur impasse must be broken.

It has been more than three weeks since Miss Banerjee commenced her fast. Reports say her health is failing. The Governor, Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has made several honourable efforts to make her change her mind. It is not, however, within his powers to concede what she wants ~ an assurance from the government that those who do not wish to be dispossessed of their lands in Singur will be kept outside the ambit of acquisition. According to her, owners of nearly half the land in question fall into this category. But to segregate them may be impractical, for it cannot be assumed that tracts owned by those who don’t want to sell are contiguous. To scrap the process, and to invite the Tatas to choose an alternate site is equally impractical. Besides the obvious embarrassment that Mr. Bhattacharjee would face in not being able to deliver on a promise, what would happen to those who have sold their lands willingly? How then is the impasse to be broken?

The facts suggest that the government has been hasty, arrogant and even disingenuous with the truth. It would seem that mis-statements have been made, in the Assembly and outside. Mr. Gandhi has offered an eminently sane and reasonable suggestion ~ that the entire issue of land use be brought into the open, for a dialogue involving various stake holders and with the intention of evolving long-term norms to avoid needless displacement and human distress. The problem at Singur, though, is that it may now be too late to unscramble the omelette, which perhaps explains why the Tatas ~ who ought to know just how much of the acquisition was voluntary ~ are keeping mum.

As suggestions, we can offer the following. First, all parties agree that where no consent has been obtained from Singur’s land-owners, but only where contiguity of holding can be maintained, the process be reversed. This will ensure that the Tatas are able to get 500 or 600 acres of contiguous lands. Such acquisition may involve some of those who do not wish to sell, but this cannot be avoided and the government must immediately relocate them on alternate plots. Second, and simultaneously, government agree to set up a committee, with equal representation from the ruling party on the one hand, and from civil society, including the Opposition, on the other, to discuss and evolve methodology for determining use of land, and modalities for future acquisitions. Mr Bhattacharjee and Miss Banerjee should both join this committee. Third, and following the recommendations of this committee, alternate land be identified in the Dankuni belt, not so far from Singur, and given over for the purpose of locating ancillary industries.

Should these suggestions be accepted, Miss Banerjee ought to relent and call off her fast. Bengal will need to confront many more challenges as it travels on the road from whimsical Communism to pragmatic industrialization. And one thing that Mr. Bhattacharjee’s conduct in recent times has made abundantly clear is that the state needs a potent Opposition, and not only in the Assembly.

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