Deocha-Pachami coal mine: Industry, displacement and CPI(M)-TMC role reversal

The TMC and CPI(M) have learnt lessons from Singur-Nandigram
Last Updated 27 December 2021, 06:38 IST

"This land belongs to you, and if there is coal, gold or diamond underneath, that too belongs to you. None else has a right to it. Protect your land like you protect your children."

Curiously enough, the recent statement is from a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a party that had pushed hard to acquire farmland for private industrial projects in West Bengal in 2006-07 during its seventh and final term in the government.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front government lost its three and a half-decade rule primarily due to the anti-displacement movements led by Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee. But the CPI(M) has never conceded that its industrialisation drive was a mistake.

According to the review of the 2011 Assembly election debacle by the party's Central Committee, the Singur and Nandigram events were "used effectively against the CPI(M) and the Left Front by the TMC-led combine to propagate that the Left Front government would snatch away the lands of the farmers." It stated that "the administrative and political mistakes in this regard proved costly." The point, which needs noting, is that the review did not mention the word "ideological".

Instead, in 2016, the CPI(M) candidate in the Singur assembly, also a member of its Central Committee, started his campaign riding a Nano car, ostensibly to remind voters of the opportunity they lost. In February 2021, ahead of the Assembly elections, another Central Committee member, Sujan Chakraborty, who was also the leader of the Left parliamentary party in the assembly (2016-2021), symbolically laid the foundation stone for an industry in Singur.

"By this symbolic act of laying the foundation stone in Singur, I declare our pledge for taking the responsibility of industrialisation and employment (should we come to power)," Chakraborty said at the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) organised event. The DYFI is the CPI(M)'s youth wing.

Fifteen years after Banerjee found in Singur the issue for her resurgence from political nadir, the CPI(M) has not changed its position on Singur. But its Rajya Sabha MP Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya's recent speech addressing the tribal population of Deocha-Pachami echoed the tone and content of Banerjee's speeches of that time.

"I want to tell the police that if they try to terrorise you (people), if goons are employed, I urge local women to make good use of their sticks. Thrash whoever comes to you. If there are police cases, I will take care of those. Keep your sticks close to your hands and use them to thrash anyone who comes to (threaten) you. It has now been decided that there will be no displacement," said Bhattacharya on December 18, 2021. He had served as the last CPI(M) mayor of Kolkata (2005-2010) and led the Left Front government's legal battle over Singur in the courts.

The event was not organised under the party's banner but the "Save Democracy" platform, which the Left and Congress have backed. Veteran Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who served as the leader of the opposition in the last assembly, was also present. They addressed a gathering of the local tribal population on a field at Dewanganj village in Deocha-Pachami. The Mamata Banerjee government wants to build one of the country's largest coal mines at an investment of Rs 35,000 crore and possible international collaboration.

Now, the TMC is keen on this project that would require the displacement of 21,000 people and the closure of 27 stone quarries and 285 crusher units where about 3,000 people work. The government has announced a Rs 10,000 crore compensation package, and many consider it better than the Left Front government's package during Singur-Nandigram.

Unlike the Tata Motors' plant or the Salem group's chemical hub, which were entirely private industrial projects, this is a proposed public-private partnership project. Here the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited plays the leading role. The coal extraction is expected to meet the state's own power generation requirements and give it a surplus.

The TMC government has learnt lessons from the 2006-07 agitation and tried to preempt some of the points of concern. It has attempted to resolve issues related to disputed land ownership, the lack of documentation and updating of records over the past year. Apart from owners of houses, stone quarries, land and crusher units, the compensation and rehabilitation package has considered tenant farmers and seasonal agricultural labourers and the workers (mostly casual) at existing quarries and crusher units. Albeit, many consider this inadequate.

It has offered a one-time payout of between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 13 lakh per bigha (0.33 acre), another Rs 5.5 lakh for relocation-related expenses, a 600 square feet home at a rehabilitation colony with all civic facilities, junior police constable jobs to one member from every family losing land or home and the families of tenant farmers engaged with those land plots. The number of job beneficiaries has been estimated at 4,942 persons.

Nevertheless, there are many people who, due to a set of reasons, are unwilling to accept the package and relocate. Some are apprehensive about the promises, and their realisation, mainly due to people's experiences in areas like the Asansol-Raniganj mining belt of the neighbouring Paschim Bardhaman district. There is a general lack of trust regarding government promises, irrespective of the party in power. Issues like land price or size of the house at rehabilitation colony were matters of a bargain. Some had environmental concerns regarding open cast mining.

"Even 300 metres deep mines cause incidents of caving-in in the neighbourhood of mines. Here, we hear it will be 800-100 meters deep. Even areas outside the mines will be affected," Harinsingha resident Dulal Mardi told this journalist.

The government, sensing this reluctance among the local people in relocating, has been buying time but certainly not wasting it. It has employed a strategy different from that of the Left during Singur-Nandigram.

The TMC plans to leave the resistance leaderless by employing the age-old carrot and stick policy. It has inducted two of the key organisers of the resistance programme into the party and entrusted them with convincing people about the project's benefits. One of them is the influential tribal leader Sunil Soren. He had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019 and served as the general secretary of Birbhum district BJP's Yuva Morcha. The other is the local BJP leader Subhrangshu alias Khokan Choudhury, a general secretary of the BJP's Birbhum district committee.

One reason these leaders switched camps is the BJP's reluctance to overtly back them in opposing the project because the Union government's policy is to increase annual coal production. But just like in Singur-Nandigram, smaller political, human rights and environmental organisations (mostly left-leaning) are coming together in support and solidarity with the local anti-displacement protesters. The CPI(M) appears keen to find a place among them, just like the TMC did in 2006-07.

In response to the Save Democracy event, the TMC on December 23 organised a meeting and a rally at the same venue, with Sunil Soren seen in the front. The rally came under attack from local women opposed to the project, subsequent to which policemen allegedly lathi-charged the protesting women. The TMC's pro-industry rally at Dewanganj appeared similar to those conducted by the CPI(M) in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-07 as part of the 'area dominance exercise'. However, the reporting of the Dewanganj event in the CPI(M)'s Bengali mouthpiece, the daily Ganashakti, reflects sympathy, if not support, for the anti-displacement protesters.

Meanwhile, the police have filed a case of unlawful Assembly naming nine organisers of Deocha Pachami Adibasi Janajati Bhumi Raksha Committee for organising the event involving Save Democracy. "We have taken bail from the court. They can't silence us, neither with rewards nor threats," Sunil Murmu, one of those named in the police case, said.

The TMC, by no means, wants this project stalled, even though the party does not want a repeat of scenes like Singur-Nandigram, especially since Banerjee is eyeing a bigger role in national politics. It remains to be seen how the government moves ahead with the project without reaching a flashpoint.

(The writer is a journalist based in Kolkata)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 27 December 2021, 06:38 IST)

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