Agrarian Confusion

- Sankar Ray

(The following article is excerpted from the original that appeared in The Statesman, 27 July 2007)

Ever since the dubious duo in Left politics - the West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his second-in-command on industrialisation, Commerce and Industry Minister Nirupam Sen - took the centre-stage in the arena of industrialisation in the state and policy-angle thereof, the magnitude of confusion about the land or agrarian question has been expanding.

The latest one - how many land-owners at Singur gave written consent for acquisition to the department of land and land reforms through the district collector - is its symptomatic manifestation. But for the assertive statement by the Land and Land Reforms Minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah that 2,552 farmers owning 326 acres did not accord consent, the duo would have staged a walkover.

Bhattacharjee’s desperate face-saving bid that owners who gave consent owned 954 acres of land there may at the most pacify the rank and file, especially those that are more roughs than comrades – like Milton’s angels who only listen, never question.  Let’s quote from the LF government’s Status Report on Singur. “Declaration of award for the entire 997.11 acres in five mouzas was made by the Collector of Hooghly on 23 and 25 September 2006. On 4 October 2006, the Collector took possession of the lands and handed them over to the WBIDC the same day.” The SRS stated that compensation, paid until 31 December last, covered 658 acres - meaning that compensation for 339 acres was yet to be paid.

LF policy-framers may go through an article by Amar Chattopadhyay, an expert on matters pertaining to land and land laws, in Bhumibarta, mouthpiece of the West Bengal Land and Land Reforms Officers’ Association, months back. He raised fundamental queries on the SRS rationale. Referring to a circular (1701-LA, dated 6 June 2006) by the L&LR department, he cited the rampant violation. Para 23 of the circular states - Possession only after payment - “Along with and as soon as award money is paid in connection with any land acquired, the possession of such land shall be immediately handed over to the requiring body and the possession of the acquired land to the requiring body shall be a continuous process and completed within 15 days after payment of award money”. So, excepting lands for which compensation was paid until 4 October 2006, no land could be taken possession of. In other words, possession of over one-third of land by the Collector of Hooghly district (SRS rightly states that power for acquisition is delegated to the Collector, as per Section 16 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894).

The tearing hurry and lack of patience to abide by the rules are evident in the SRS. “Conversion of usage of land from agriculture to factory was done of 21st November, 2006 in accordance with Section 4C of the WB Land Reforms Act, 1955. WBIDC has thereafter given permissive possession on 27 December, 2006 to Tata Motors Ltd,” it states. Thus the 6 June 2006 circular was trampled arbitrarily, taking unwilling-to- consent land-owners for a ride. The WBIDC is obviously a trespasser, compensation- payment having been incomplete. Chattopadhyay elaborated the point further that Section 4C and rule 5A of WBLR rules were misused. How could the WBIDC accord “permissive possession” to a third party (Tata Motors Ltd)? It has been allowed to travel far behind the statutes.

There are many instances of desperate bid by the CPI-M leaders to throw away principles of agrarian legalities. Ignorance or innocence is not an acceptable escape route after three decades of uninterrupted hegemony that provided the party enough trial-and-error experiences to fine-tune agrarian attitude in line with the electoral pledges, laid down in 1977 and thereafter.

Chattopadhyay snapped fingers at several lapses in land acquisition-rationale at Singur and possession, citing sections 9, 10,11, 12 and 13 of LA -1894 for dealing with likely objections or petitions and inquiries thereof as also preparation of individual-wise award for ascertaining compensation as per different subsections under Section 23. Relevant criteria include inter alia market value of land [“at the rate of twelve per cent per annum” over a period between on and from the date of publication of notification’ under sub-section 4(1), plus 30 per cent of market value].

The present government pays little attention to those fundamentals that are consonant with the logic of civil society. For instance, after notification for land acquisition under Section 4(1) through two newspapers (one local), the collector must elicit details about at least ten most recent sales of holdings up to the date of notification in order to compute market values (average) with type-wise segregation. This was not done, according to sources in the Hooghly collectorate. CPI(M) biggies, from General Secretary Prakash Karat to their acid-tongued Central Committee member create an impression that the LF government goes out of the way to pay compensation to the share-croppers. The explanatory portion of Section 23(4), Chattopadhyay points out, has clearly provided for such compensation (not confined to recorded ones). The net annual income - six times of which being the compensation - is 50 per cent of “total produce of the land cultivated by him in that year where the plough, cattle, manure and seeds necessary for cultivation” are provided by the person owning the land and 75 per cent of total produce in all other cases.

The compensation the so-called pro-landless peasant government wants to pay to the bargadars is much less. It’s nothing short of deprivation. The WBIDC, according to the SRS, “decided to pay higher compensation to the recorded bargadars to the extent of 25 per cent of the amount of compensation paid to the owners. Again, has the WBIDC the mandate to pay compensation, that also not for its purpose? It is heavily subsidised by the state government as it is almost always in the red.