One Year Later: Nandigram and the Struggle against Forced Displacement in India

Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 11, April 20-26, 2008

In January and March 2007, tens of thousands of peasants at Nandigram in West Bengal, India rose up to defend their land. By the time their struggle abated, the peasants had stopped the plans of the Left Front government in West Bengal to build a giant chemical complex on their land, and they had driven the police and the armed cadre of the CPI (Marxist) entirely out of the Nandigram area for eight months. This struggle radically transformed the political terrain in the growing struggle against the hundreds of “Special Economic Zones” that are being planned and built from one end of India to another.

Based on legislation passed in 2005, Special Economic Zones are enclaves of new industry and infrastructure. SEZs offer hefty exemptions from taxes on profits, no tariffs, and exemptions from most labor legislation. Since SEZs are treated as “public service utilities,” strikes are illegal. SEZs are aptly called Special Exploitation Zones by Indian activists because they allow big Indian capitalists and multinational corporations to extract high rates of profit from their workers and plunder India’s natural resources. Though not yet on the same scale as the sprawling economic zones of southeast China, over 500 SEZs have been approved by the Central and State authorities. Most of them are under construction or in the process of land acquisition.

After plans for SEZs have been announced, farmers have resisted selling their land and peasants have refused to move. When bribery and bullying tactics have failed, the government in West Bengal as well as other states has employed the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. This British colonial-era law allows the state to force farmers to sell their land for “public purposes” on the government’s terms.

The Role of the CPI (Marxist) in West Bengal

In West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, is the dominant force in the Left Front government. After giving up on revolutionary struggle in the 1960s, the CPM reconfigured itself as a parliamentary party. The CPM rode the tide of militant struggle in the West Bengal countryside and Kolkata to power in the 1970s.

Today the CPM leadership is mostly composed of an upper-caste urban elite. It has been able to stay in power through instituting a land reform program in the 1980s (which it has abandoned), and through setting up a system of strong-armed patronage, which reaches down into every village in West Bengal. Any who dare oppose local CPM bosses are socially boycotted, harassed over rations, fired from jobs, and thrashed or worse. In spite of the CPM’s self-proclaimed progressive credentials, workers’ wages, peasants’ incomes, health services and primary education in West Bengal (over 900,000 children are officially out of the school system and 40 percent of the schools have no toilets) are no better than the rest of India.

The CPM has been trying to sell the SEZs as vehicles for “pro-people industrialization” that will allegedly create the material conditions for “socialism.” The document on economic policy passed at the 18th Congress of the CPM in 2005 welcomes foreign capital which brings more advanced technology and generates employment. In fact, the industries being set up in the SEZs are extremely capital intensive and will create few jobs, almost none of which will be for the peasants dispossessed from their ancestral lands. According to a peasant who once worked on the land now occupied by an SEZ near Nandigram, “all those who left their land are selling cucumber and cleaning shit.”

Land Grab at Singur

In West Bengal, the CPM-led government has moved to acquire 140,000 acres of land for SEZs, which will eventually uproot a total of 2.5 million peasants. The first big test of this policy came at Singur in 2006, where the government sought to acquire 997 acres of fertile multi-crop land for an auto plant for the Tatas, the largest capitalist conglomerate in India. This project threatened to displace over 20,000 people.

When the news of the land acquisition came out, farmers and peasants organized themselves in the Singur Krishi Raksha Committee. In early June 2006, over 2,000 peasants staged a demonstration at a government office with bullocks and agricultural implements. Many women carried brooms in their hands, which became the symbol of protest in Singur. In July, peasants blockaded one of the main express roads in the area. On the night of September 25, as local people gheraoed (surrounded) the government office in charge of the land grab, they were attacked by the police and CPM cadres. Dozens were injured, including many women, and one youth was beaten to death.

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