Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mamta Banerjee and Singur

So Mamta Banerjee claims to have achieved something. She sat on a long fast to do something about the acquisition of land for the Singur project. For those unaware, the Singur project is the plan by the Tata group to setup a plant in West Bengal for building their dream Rs. 1 lakh car. This will happen by acquiring land from farmers to setup a plant. Mamta Banerjee is protesting against this proposal, or is she claiming that farmers have not been compensated accordingly? The entire media coverage does not make this distinction, but it makes a fair amount of difference as to what her goals have been. That is, if we accept that her goal in terms of this fast has been on some principle, but it is hard to get away from the thought that the only objective of this entire drama has been to portray herself as a champion of the farmers and to oppose the left; maybe this will convert her from being a spent force to somebody who starts getting public support again.
If her objection is to acquiring land from farmers for setting up a industrial plant, then it is sheer lunacy to support her in any way. The only way that a country advances economically is by moving up the value chain, and agriculture is the lowest element on the value chain. Land is a limited commodity, and if we get too romantic about land being used only for farming, then we might as well condemn our country to having a major segment of the population living in a poor sustenance type farming. Setting up industries after a due cost benefit analysis has a positive effect on the local economy, promoting ancillary industries, making the area more better off and raising the local purchasing power. This is the target of all industrialization. I believe that the current West Bengal chief Minister realizes this better than most politicians, which is why he is in the forefront of trying to bring more companies to invest in the region. But it is funny to see a Communist government being called as anti-farmer.
If Mamta's objection is to make sure that farmers are getting due compensation, then it is a sorry state of affairs that a political leader has to go on a long protest to make sure that compensation is happening properly. It has been the bane of a number of big projects (including mega-dams) that there have been consistent questions raised in the past about compensation not reaching the affected party. We need to avoid becoming another China where there are frequent protests about compensation not reaching the targeted citizens. We need to have a system in place that ensures compensation reaches the targeted party, which is
where having communists in the government should have helped since it is their ideology to ensure that farmers get their due. There must be at least one benefit of having a communist party in power.
There is one question that remains unanswered; does India really need a 1 lakh car? Given the state of our roads and wide-spread congestion, we should instead be moving to a system whereby public transport is the main means of getting around and owning a big means of transport such as a car becomes more expensive. This is a system that a number of countries have tried out with some success to control traffic congestion. Getting a 1 lakh car will instead mean a movement in the directly opposite direction.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 7:41 AM