Ratan Tata has threatened that he would rather pull out of the Nano project in Singur than risk the safety of his employees even if such a move resulted in huge losses (Rs. 1500 crores have already been spent on the project). One can appreciate Tata’s concerns, but the violence in Singur is of a political nature and at its root lies a problem that is not restricted to Singur or West Bengal – the politics of the great land grab.
The Indian central and state governments have never really bothered about property rights when it came to “national interest” or “public interest” or “development”. Rent control, urban land ceiling, zoning, acquisition of property for dams or to lay railway tracks or to build highways or other projects, or more recently – SEZs are all part of the same problem – the refusal to acknowledge the principle that the owner has the right to the disposal of his property in a manner of his choosing and for a compensation that he demands.
In Singur, the communist government grabbed land from farmers, paid them compensation (some farmers did not accept it), and then leased the land to the Tatas. It is but natural that those who do not want to give up their land will protest. Generally such protests stop getting media attention after a while or simply subside when the compensation amount is increased. In Singur, however, Mamata Banerjee saw that she could pin the communists down, and she went ahead and did it. Trinamul Congress spokesman Derek O’Brien argued today, and the argument has been made several times before, that out of the 1000 odd acres allotted for the project, 400 acres belong to farmers who do not want to give it up. They have been indulging in subsistence farming for a long time and even if the Tatas have promised blue collar jobs for family members, it is difficult to convince farmers to make the shift. What he is basically arguing is that the farmers prefer stagnating rather than change their attitudes. It is a bad idea, but the farmers are entitled to their opinion. After all, the land – whether it is able to feed them or not – belongs to them.
Ratan Tata can complain and even feel threatened, but he committed a major blunder in letting the communists deal with the farmers. In any land acquisition, a direct deal between the owner and the buyer is the best one and such a deal would have prevented Banerjee from resorting to her brand of politics. Now, the issue has become one of saving face. The Left cannot give in. Banerjee cannot give in. And the Tatas needs the 1000 acres without which the entire logistics of production will take a hit. If Singur doesn’t provide land, make no mistake, the Tatas will move. They don’t bluff.
A country that does not respect property rights does not respect any rights. And we can see this around us all day, every day.
As Abhishek points out (see comment below), the Tatas could not have directly purchased land from the farmers because such an act is illegal in India. So the only blunder Ratan Tata committed was dealing with the soulless communists.