Monday, September 8, 2008

NA NO MAMATA, THIS VICTORY IS A DEFEAT

Late last night, Mamata Bannerjee and the West Bengal government finally reached an agreement on the vexed issue of the 400 acres of land acquired for the Tata Nano plant in Singur by the government. After a last minute hitch, Governor Gandhi, who had been requested to break the impasse, announced that an agreement had been reached.

Mamata Bannerjee has called off the agitation in Singur and claimed ‘total victory’. On the face of it, her claim is justified. She wanted the government to return 400 acres and she has got it to do exactly that. As per Mamata, 300 acres of the land to be returned will be from within the plant premises while another 100 acres will from outside. A committee has been formed to find modalities to return the land to the farmers within a week.

Mamata is, naturally, euphoric. The Tatas on the other hand are distressed. They were just not taken into confidence before the agreement was finalised. And they have been handed a deal which appears to be un-implementable. The Tatas have 695 acres of land while their vendors have 290 acres. In addition, WBIDC has 47 acres and the state government 15 acres within the project area. The Tatas have already returned 40 acres of land and have made it clear that any further withdrawal of land will make the project unviable.

Though the agreement was reached last night, the state government has, surprisingly, yet not communicated its details to the Tatas. They are justifiably distressed ‘at the limited clarity on the outcome’ and have announced that they will not resume work on the project till clarity emerges on the agreement.

The Tatas have been saying all along that the integral nature of the mother plant and the ancillary units has to be maintained to make the project viable. Will they now agree to re-locate the ancillary units to make available 300 acres of land to be returned to farmers? Will they now buckle under pressure and accept the large recurring costs that shifting of these units will entail, making it impossible to sell the Nano for RS1 lakh? It appears unlikely, going by their latest statement. They have once again clarified that 995 acres of land is required and that only 47 acres of WBIDC land is up for review.

If the Tatas stick to this stand, as it appears now that they will, the agreement between Mamata and the CM is all but dead already.

Has Mamata really achieved her objective or has she condemned herself to political obscurity and the people of Singur to poverty and deprivation? She may have succeeded in pushing the hapless Chief Minister into a political surrender and achieved a pyrrhic personal victory. Will that be enough to make Ratan Tata also surrender to her, under pressure from the CM and many others in the larger interest of West Bengal?

This is the one political battle that will reverberate across India and influence similar disputes that are bound to arise as more and more land is acquired for setting up industries in an India making the transition from a developing to a developed nation. That is why, it is important that a sharp lesson is taught to irresponsible politicians that they cannot keep getting away with impossible demands. The surrender of the state government to Mamata clearly indicates that it is not going to be easy for other politicians to show the much needed spine.

That unpleasant task has, therefore, to be taken on by the industry which is putting its money on the ground. Although Bengal will suffer very heavily if the Nano project moves to another state, for the sake of India and Indian industry, Ratan Tata should swallow that bitter pill once and tell Mamata that what she has achieved is not a victory but an inglorious defeat from which she will not recover.

Ironically, that may be the only way to get her out of the way or into the flow that can still keep the Nano in West Bengal.