The Singur smokescreen: Part-II

BY aniruddha dutta| IN Regional Media | 08/02/2007
Glossing over the details of "consent" to acquisition and trivialising the farmers` protests has grave implications.

Aniruddha Dutta

The issue of compensation

The representation of compensation and relief is another area where priorities and stakes of the sections of the media become clear. In case of The Telegraph, the politics of representation is consistent and starts from the early efforts of the ruling party regarding compensation, in June. Once again, we see the focus on the most moneyed section, the big landowners who are not directly connected with land cultivation unlike the bargadars, to create the sense of a general willingness to accept the compensation: ?CPM zonal committee secretary Suhrid Dutta urged local Trinamul Congress MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya and the Trinamul friends [sic] not to confuse the farmers by spreading misinformation about the compensation ? According to the CPM leaders, only 250 bighas of the land earmarked for the Tatas yield three crops a year. After the meeting, Ashis Saha, who owns 100 bighas, Swarup Barui, who owns 60, and Dwarik Ghosh, the owner of 15 bighas at Beraberi said they would sell their land. Cultivation, Saha added, is no longer cost-effective and remunerative prices for produce have become uncertain.? (?CPM launches Mission Singur?, TT Jun 05 2006).

The sense of a just and adequate compensation process is again created in the article ?Singur braces for battle: In court & on field? (TT, Sept 19 2006). To a careful reader, the article is paradoxical: it seeks to clarify and support the government¿s compensation policies and process as fair and farmer-oriented, and yet it exposes the fact that the process has proceeded without any dialogue or any transparency. ??We have received consent for 557.98 acres so far,? said Liakat Ali, the additional Hooghly district magistrate? ?The land minister will address a public meeting in Singur on Sunday. He will tell the rally there was no option to the acquisition. The Tatas, shown several plots, had chosen Singur because they wanted their showpiece venture to be located near Calcutta? The land reforms department is now calculating the compensation to be paid to the land losers. The amounts will be declared by Thursday.??

All seems hunky dory, happening with the ?consent? of a large section, but a chart at the bottom of the page gives us the chronological sequence of the procedure. The chart sets out the government figures: ?consent received for 557.98 acres; consent deadline Sept 18; compensation to be announced on Sept 21; Possession to be taken on Sept 25.?  One pauses.

What is the meaning of ?consent? (applicable to the compensation amount, not to acquisition as we noted earlier) if the announcement of compensation amount comes after the consent deadline? What, indeed, would ?consent? mean if the gap between the consent deadline (Sept 18) and the possession date is given as a mere 7 days? And what does ?consent? really count for if it is to be given or not by a deadline, that too before the amount is declared? Also, is a large one-time down payment - to be accepted or refused in the face of a deadline - the  right way of ?compensation? or should farmers have greater stake in the entire process of industrialisation, from greater initial freedom over selling land, to shares in the equity of the company? By presenting the sense of willingness and transparency in the face of these very obvious questions, the article wears its hypocrisy thin.

The Times of India, in its article on the beginning of construction, briefly mentions the extension of prohibitory orders on assembly under section 144 to prevent protests during the initial construction - ?The Tata communication came a day after the West Bengal government extended prohibitory orders banning the assembly of four or more people in Singur till Jan 28 midnight following reports that more protests could be organized? - but it does not further probe the implications or villagers¿ reactions to the extended restrictions. One might have thought that such government measures implied a continuing resistance and thus should have attracted greater scrutiny, but instead, the article goes on to advertise the Tata¿s promises of employment and aid to the local people as per a company release: ?The Tata Motors plant operation is expected to create employment in excess of 10,000 direct and indirect jobs,? the release said. The civil construction for the plant is being initiated by Tata Motors, it said. Tata Motors said through its contractors and its sub-contractors it will deploy appropriate and necessary people from Singur area for various unskilled jobs and skilled assignments like masons and fitters. It said it was initiating various steps to train people of the Singur villages, who had earlier registered with WBIDC, to improve their employability. It has already selected ?a batch of individuals for an extensive six-month training.? One notes that this ?batch of individuals? is but 24 youths and the people hitherto employed in construction number about 200: even if well meaning, such gestures cannot substitute any uniform rehabilitation package for the thousands of people displaced. By focusing extensively on these gestures at a critical juncture when government thinks it is imperative to contain protests by laws and police presence, the Times makes its priorities only too clear.

In any case, there are important questions about compensation and relief that the ground reporting ought to highlight at a critical juncture of economic decision-making, but these are deliberately obliterated in taking too apparent sides with the government or the corporate sector.

Representing farmers: resistance and agency

We have noted earlier how the farmers have been represented to create a sense of willingness or consent that is specious - the game becomes even more devious when it comes to representing the resistance and agency (that is, the conscious acting capacity) of the farmers and villagers. There are two primary and interconnected ways in which such resistance is ignored or rationalised away: one, the focus on the political clashes between Trinamul and CPM while ignoring/downplaying farmers¿ voices or actions, and two, when there is any serious show of resistance or solidarity it is put down to ?outsiders? (from the Trinamul to Maoists) and thus delegitimised. In these two ways, any serious expression of dissent is put down as a ?law and order? problem which calls for only government force, and not something which requires much greater accountability to the villagers and (dare one ask?) an engagement with the villagers¿ rights, demands, complaints and anxieties.

A very recent incident around which the representation of agency can be studied is the incident on January 28, when police and Trinamul supporters clashed outside of Singur, following which villagers tried to set the fence around the construction site on fire. Comparing the newspaper reports on Jan 29 (The Statesman/TT/HT) is instructive. The Telegraph, unlike the Hindustan Times and The Statesman, does not carry it on the front page except for a small column, and there are two connected reports in the ¿Bengal¿ page. The first, ?Trinamul Tussle at House hot spot?, describes how ?Trinamul workers planning a march were today stopped at Maitipara, the spot where a similar obstruction of Mamata Banerjee¿s motorcade two months ago has sparked vandalism at the Assembly? [the November 30 incident when TMC MLAs rampaged the assembly to ¿protest¿ police obstruction].  One notes that the reference to the two-month old vandalism (certainly reprehensible in itself) does not have much relevance for the present situation, as the article itself concedes, ?the action this time was limited?. The agenda, then, is to use the older incident of blatant vandalism to write off the events of the day as only another law-and-order issue. The report neglects to mention that this particular police obstruction comes after the Section 144 restrictions have been lifted, and that too, at an area away from Singur.

Moreover, the reaction of the villagers at the site itself is subsequently portrayed thus: ?as news of the trouble spread, some 500 villagers in Singur ran to the? project site and, for the fourth time in just over a week, tried to torch the fence posts. They were subsequently driven away by the police?. The hint of irritating repetitiveness in ?for the fourth time in just over a week? makes a mockery of their prolonged rage, and dismisses any inquiry into the pending issues that may have prompted its continuance. They are of course not to be taken with any seriousness: the phrase ?driven away? is eloquent in its dismissiveness. Next to this article there is a report (in bold type, too) about a government report saying that the total percentage of land acquired is negligible in comparison to the total cultivated land area, and the report goes on about how that negates Trinamul claims about shrinking fertile land (?State rebuts Mamata slur?). This is not only neglecting the issue at hand, which is not macroeconomic but local, but also a way of diverting attention away from it while highlighting the supposed accountability and transparency of the government (the report carries a pie-chart graphic to pictorially present the government figures).

The Statesman, true to its anti-CPM stance, focuses on the police action and its negative consequences, with the front page headline ?40 injured in Singur clashes?. However, the article again concentrates centrally on the political standoff between TMC and CPM, and although it mentions that the villagers trying to torch the fence were beaten up when the police  ?rushed to the spot and started beating up some locals?, it does not give any further attention to it.  Were there any arrests of villagers made? What were the casualties if any? (the ?40 injured? refer to the Trinamul-Police clash). If The Statesman fails to provide answers, the Hindustan Times front page report (?Pitched battle near project site at Singur?) is an even worse place to look for further clarification, as it doesn¿t even mention the farmers¿ reaction and confines the report to the Trinamul-police clash. It does not even mention that there was any incident except the Trinamul protesters - thus again the sense that is created is of an essentially political (and therefore, not authentic) standoff. Interestingly, it was the Bangla edition Dainik Statesman that, unlike its English counterpart, carried details regarding the villagers: one couple arrested, several women injured, etc. None of the English biggies thought it worthwhile to provide any such attention to the incident.

This is not surprising at least in the case of The Telegraph, for it has a months-long record of slighting farmers¿ resistance even as it quotes them (as we saw) to bolster its pro-government stance. The earlier protests - till they acquire stronger expression leading to clashes with the police, notably on December 3 - are covered perfunctorily, sometimes even with a comic tinge. A report such as ?Protest rerun in Singur? (TT, Jun 02 2006) at least gives an overview of the protestors and their demands and tactics (?about 3,000 villagers today staged a demonstration in front of the office of the Singur block development officer against the government¿s move to acquire farmland for the Tata Motors project?), but by the time of ?Broom charge in Singur? (TT, Aug 15 2006) the reporting takes the villagers less seriously: ?Wielding sticks, sickles and brooms, farmers and their families stood in the way of district officials who arrived in Singur today to serve notices for the hearing of objections to land acquisition for the Tata small car project.? The report does not bother with any further details but goes straight on to the government stand, without a murmur: ?The government has, however, decided to complete the hearing by August 28. It had recently said it would speed up the process of acquiring land. Twenty-three district officials, divided into two groups, went to Gopalnagar and Bajemelia villages in Singur.? The focus on the homely arms of the villagers (?sticks, sickles and brooms?) and the phrase ?broom charge? in the headline gives an air of flippancy and humour to the reporting, and this comic strain is further evident in a photo caption on August 19 accompanying a file picture of farmers¿ wives at a protest: ?broom, broom?. The caption and the picture, however, are not immediately relevant to the report they accompany (?Singur farmers threaten to fight?) which is about a planned CITU rally in Singur (pro-govt and pro-acquisition) and the combined resolution of farmers to nevertheless not give in: ?A day after the chief minister warned of police action to ?foil the politically-motivated opposition? to land acquisition at Singur, a leader of the farmers¿ group opposing the takeover said they were ?ready to give our blood, but not part with our land?.? What purpose could the caption serve here, then, except to add a comic aside that seems to trivialise the protests? 

Contact: anirdutt@gmail.com

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