India’s economic progress left in Tatas

The campaign to shut down a cheap car factory is driven by elite green angst more than the Indian people’s interests.

Alka Sehgal

Topics Science & Tech

On Friday, Tata Motors, the company behind the much-discussed ‘people’s car’, the Nano, announced that it was pulling out of its plant in Singur, near Kolkata in West Bengal. The factory had been hit by protests about compensation payments to farmers, on whose land the factory would be developed and built. But behind the local protests lies an anti-development trend that threatens India’s economic growth and the hope of increasing prosperity for the majority of the population that remains desperately poor.

The Nano – which Tata still plans to build elsewhere – was subject to considerable hypocrital and doom-mongering criticism from the Western media when it was unveiled in January. The Nano may not be particularly sexy to Western eyes, but for many Indians it holds out the possibility of affordable personal transport. A simple, rear-engine, four-seater, lightweight vehicle, it is the cheapest car in the world – it will retail for £1,200 (around $2,500 or €2,200). This means that, finally, driving will become affordable to India’s growing middle classes. Now, however, Tata’s departure from the West Bengal plant will delay production for months, and possibly years.

Who is opposing Tata’s plans? Certainly not the 82 per cent of farmers who have already sold over 691 acres to the state government, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). A further 300 acres have been acquired from farmers by the government’s use of an archaic law introduced by the British during the Raj. Figures vary, but clearly some farmers have not yet received, or are refusing to accept, compensation deals. They are, however, a minority (around 17 per cent of Singur farmers).

No doubt some of these farmers will have been involved in the roadblocks and site occupations which prompted the deployment of 5,000 riot police in the area. But most of the opposition to Tata has come from various political groups and non-governmental organisations, all of which claim to represent the interests of the small farmer holding out against politicians and industrialists.

Medha Patkar, earlier a leading opponent of the Narmada Dam Project, has paid a supportive visit to the Singur site (perhaps seeking a new cause after the courts gave the go-ahead for the dam to be built). Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has hoofed her way from Delhi to lend her support. And taking her cue, perhaps, from Medha Patkar, Mamata Banerjee, leader of the opposition Trinamool Congress Party (TCP), has been on hunger strike in protest against the Tata factory development.

The opponents of the plant have demanded that between 300 and 400 acres of land be returned to the farmers. Tata has refused to return this amount as it would mean not being able to build ancilliary units for suppliers next to the factory (which will help to cut the cost of production).

CARTOON: Click on the image
above for Indian graphic novelist
Sarnath Banerjee’s take on
the Nano

The compensation deal recently offered by Tata and the CPI-M is impressive. It includes the guarantee of a government job for one person per household within a year; special status for Singur farmers with government welfare agencies; and financial remuneration for farmers and sharecroppers. Most importantly, Tata will develop the infrastructure in and around Singur. If Tata is to proceed with production, it will have to build roads, telecommunications, and public and private buildings.

It is no wonder that now supporters of the plant are protesting, calling on Tata to stay and continue with its plans. They are concerned that they will lose jobs, money and new amenities if Tata is effectively forced out. A 10-hour bandh (civic shutdown) was observed last weekend in reaction to the behaviour of the groups that oppose Tata. One farmer, who had willingly given up land for the plant, told the Hindu newspaper: ‘Can any of the opposition leaders tell us what we will do now? People of Singur have been the worst sufferers in this dirty political game.’ (1)

However, with all the arrogance of the reactionary environmental arguments already so familiar here in the West, the TCP dismisses the Tata compensation schemes as manipulative pay-offs, which amount to nothing compared with the importance of farmers holding on to their small patches of land and continuing to live in the traditional, rural manner.

This really is the crux of the matter. As Indian business columnist Gucharan Das writes ‘[T]he real question is whether Indians want to remain starving peasants or become part of an urban proletariat.’ (2)

Romanticised images of Indian rural life are familiar to us now, as are the demonising images of poverty in urban slums. Translation: rural, good; urban, bad. Taking the train from Kolkata to Jamshedpur (home of Tata Steel), one can see how these stereotypes have credibility. Despite the growth and dynamism in Kolkata, there are still horrendous levels of poverty and deprivation. And as the train crosses the Howrah and glides through seemingly endless green paddy fields dotted with a few clean-looking huts and slender women in brightly coloured saris, you can imagine rural life being far more calm and pleasant than in the noisy chaos of the city.

I myself saw that rural idyll through a train window. The only noise was that of the train and its passengers. Arundhati Roy could no doubt write a poetic piece based on such a vision. But it is not the reality. The hardship and deprivation of rural life is filtered out.

In underdeveloped rural areas there can be as few as two healthcare workers per 3,000 people – or one primary health centre with two doctors per 20,000 (3). Here, the sick may die through lack of access to healthcare. Though undeniably hard, in Kolkata there is at least some possibility for the poor to improve their lot, to move on from one job or career to another; in rural areas, families are expected to live on the same farm and do the same work for generations.

Back in Britain, I had a conversation with a woman whose husband works for Massey Ferguson. He works on the computer systems fitted into tractors which have no human driver. These systems can read the productivity of a square metre of land, compute how much fertiliser is needed in any given area, and calculate the optimal depth in which to sow. Not being familiar with either tractors or computers, my mind boggled. What possibilities! I bet there are a few farmers in India who could do with this equipment.

They will never get it by remaining vulnerable, small land-holding farmers. The best chance of increasing the productivity of land (and not remaining as little more than beasts of burden themselves) is to do what every developed nation has done: embrace industrialisation. It is the only way a country like India will be able to develop and improve life for its population – rural and urban.

The anti-Tata protesters are kidding themselves if they imagine they are radical anti-capitalists or progressives taking a stand against an evil corporation. In truth, they are romanticising rural life and, if the civic shutdown is a good barometer, they are going against the wishes of vast numbers of farmers who want a better life. Like Gucharan Das, I hope those who choose the urban proletariat option win the day, and that Tata can get on with producing its ‘people’s car’.

Alka Sehgal is reading for a PhD in the disappearance of British identity.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill celebrated the arrival of ‘The People’s Car’. He asked what’s behind the campaign against 4x4s and SUVs and criticised the desire for a stay-at-home society. Daniel Ben-Ami described how pity for Indians has becomea fashion trend. Or read more at spiked issues Transport and Asia.

(1) Sindh observes bandh, the Hindu, 5 October 2008

(2) Quoted in Indian protests: Violent protests threaten to delay Tata’s plan for world’s cheapest car, Guardian, 23 August 2008

(3) Abhahy T Bang, Rani A Bang, Sanjay B Baitule, M Hanimi Reddy, Mahesh D Deshmukha in The Lancet, vol.354, December 4 1999, p 1955

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Topics Science & Tech


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