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December 10, 2008

By Dipankar Basu and Debarshi Das, Sanhati

Eminent Marxist scholar, David Harvey (DH henceforth), has been lecturing on Marx’s Capital for over 40 years now. His lucid presentation, serious engagement with the text, constant updating of his readings to keep pace with contemporary changes in the structure and functioning of capitalism, make his lectures an invaluable introduction to the work of Karl Marx. Recently DH’s lectures have been recorded and the videos made available over the internet for a much wider audience than could possibly physically attend his lectures. From the perspective of radical scholars and activists all over the world this is a very useful development, and the organizers need to be complimented for disseminating DH’s insightful lectures in this form. The recently concluded 13 part lecture series on Volume 1 of Capital is available here: http://davidharvey.org/2008/09/capital-class-13/

In the last (13th) lecture DH discusses the conditions for the emergence and continued reproduction of capitalism. As part of this discussion he not only mentions Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation but also discusses the concept of “accumulation by dispossession”, a concept that he has developed over the last couple of years as part of his attempt to describe key features of neoliberal capitalism. Interestingly, in a less-than-a-minute comment, he draws attention of his audience to recent developments in West Bengal, India as an example of “accumulation by dispossession”. The following is a rough transcription of the relevant portion of lecture 13 where DH talks about West Bengal and the “Communist” party leading it into “industrialization” via accumulation by dispossession:

“I don’t know how many of you have been following what’s been going on in West Bengal in recent months. There you have a Marxist, Communist Party that has been in power for 30 years and which has now decided that industrialization is the answer. Therefore it needs to dispossess peasants of their land. And they have violently taken the land away from peasants, killing nobody quite knows how many. When I left Mumbai last week they dug up another twenty or thirty bodies. Killing the peasants, dispossessing [them] of their land to make way for large Indonesian capital to start production in India. This, again, is accumulation by dispossession.” (approximately 19:11 minute to 19:59 minute of lecture 13)

The “Marxist, Communist Party” that DH referred to, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took note of his comments and responded. Prasenjit Bose, convenor, research cell of the CPI(M) sent a letter to DH drawing his attention to what he called a “few facts” regarding the whole matter. This letter was subsequently posted on a website on November 26, 2008 for the larger public: http://www.pragoti.org/node/2591#comment-1930 (scroll down to see the text of the letter).

Bose’s comments are neither new nor surprising. In the past, as now, whenever the CPI(M) faced challenges from within the left that it could not afford to ignore, it dished out these same arguments and “facts”. A closer scrutiny, of course, shows that most of these “facts” are in fact untruths or half-truths, and the arguments are riddled with holes so big you could drive a scooter through each of them. Let us carefully go through each of the points that Bose raises in response to DH’s pertinent and accurate comments.

(1) Bose’s first point is about the land reforms carried out by the Left Front Government in West Bengal after coming to power in 1977. He is of the opinion that “[t]he Left Front Government in West Bengal has and continues to implement the most thoroughgoing land reforms witnessed in any state in India in the post-independence period“. To buttress his argument and back up his claim, he offers a reference to a small piece in The Hindu by V K Ramachandran. He goes on to claim that “[r]edistribution of ceiling surplus land to the landless and marginal peasants is still an ongoing process and the small peasantry continues to remain the main mass base of the CPI (M) in rural West Bengal.”

There is a huge literature dealing with land reforms in West Bengal and it is symptomatic of the half-truth game that the CPI(M) has perfected over the year that the only reference Bose could offer is a short adulatory piece by a party sympathiser in a newspaper. A more balanced view of the land reforms in West Bengal brings to light many facts that militate against the uncritical and unabashedly self-congratulatory tone of Ramachandran and Bose. Here are a few for starters.

(a) 60% distributed before LFG existence: Land reforms initiated by the Left Front Government (LFG) in West Bengal has been limited in scope and extent right from the very beginning. There are several indicators of this fact which are never mentioned by CPI(M) sympathisers. For instance, it is hardly ever mentioned that more than 60% of the total land that has so far been distributed in West Bengal was distributed before 1977, i.e., before the LFG was formed. A large portion of this land was distributed during the late-1960s and early 1970s, a period of heightened political mobilization of landless labourers and marginal peasants. The subsequent 30 years of LF rule has not managed to measure up to those few tumultuous years.

(b) The Land Reforms programme largely benefited the middle sections of rural West Bengal: the middle peasants and the middle castes. Operation Barga left the lowest sections of West Bengal society high and dry: the landless labourers did not figure prominently in the programme of Operation Barga and neither did wages ever occupy a central place in the whole discourse. In 1993 the minimum wage rate in Bengal was among the lowest of Indian states; it was higher than that found only in UP and Bihar. The minimum wage rate in West Bengal was lower than in states like Orissa, Assam, and Madhya Pradesh. The growth rate of wages in West Bengal has been very slow over the period of the triumph of the LFG. Between 1983 and 1993, West Bengal had the second lowest growth rate of wages. The CPI(M), through its social democratic practice in rural West Bengal, had discovered that keeping wages of agricultural labourers low was one of the main instruments for containing and “managing” class conflict; it has never discarded this invaluable piece of wisdom.

(c) Landless, marginals excluded from credit: All through the 30 glorious years of Left Front rule, landless and marginal peasants continued to be excluded from organised credit markets for lack of collaterals. Since access to credit is vital for meeting the cost of production and consumption, this effectively meant that the landless and marginal peasants could never initiate production on their own. Over the period of the LF rule, there has been an interesting change in the composition of rural moneylenders. Apart from big merchants, who were the traditional moneylender, a new group of salaried people have now entered this lucrative market: school teachers, village doctors, Panchayat employees. This latter crop of moneylenders, not very surprisingly, derive their income from the patronage distributed by the LFG in return for political and ideological service.

(d) Nepotism and use of Panchayats: For all its celebration of grassroots democracy and peoples participation, the governing party has been deftly using village Panchayats – the local government bodies – to further its own interests and consolidate it’s hold over the rural populace. In 2000, the Krishak Sabha (the farmers’ organization of the CPI(M)) was found to be lording over 0.3 million acres of vested land. This land was intentionally kept undistributed, and used selectively to hand out patronages and favours to party loyalists. Interestingly, the CPI(M) has always been opposed to an independent organization of the rural proletariat; arguing for “peasant unity”, it has always sacrificed the class interests of the landless and marginal farmers in favour of the class interests of middle and rich peasants, many of whom employ landless labourers as wage labourers.

(e) Agricultural taxes, which could have played a role in redistribution of income, were slowly reduced until it became negligible. This was clearly a move to favour landed interests.

(f) Tenant cultivators do not constitute a large percentage of the rural poor; hence “protection” of their rights – the main thrust of the land reforms programme under the LFG – did not achieve much for the bulk of the rural poor in real terms.

(g) The statutory requirement share of 75% of the produce for the sharecropper was seldom enforced.

(h) There was no mechanism to force sharing of the cost and risk of production between the landlord and the tenant; the tenant had to bear the entire cost and risk associated with agricultural production, while the government looked the other way.

(i) For all the bluster and tall talk, about 50% of tenants are still unregistered.

For those who are willing to look at the facts, findings by several researchers are available on the subject of land reforms in West Bengal. A good starting point might be the research output of scholars like Ashok Rudra, Ben Rogaly, Barbara Harriss-White, Sugato Bose, Dwaipayan Bandyopadhyay, Ratan Khasnabis, Amit Bhaduri, and others. An edited volume called “Sonar Bangla: Agricultural Growth and Agrarian Change in West Bengal and Bangladesh” has lot of useful information. Dipankar Basu’s article in the Economic and Political Weekly summarises most of these findings (“Behind Violence in Rural West Bengal: The Political Economy of Middleness,” Economic and Political Weekly, April 21, 2001).

(2) Bose’s second and third points relate to the so-called “industrialization” policies of the LFG. He points out that “[t]he thrust towards industrialisation by the Left Front Government started in 1994, as a response to industrial stagnation and burgeoning urban unemployment, resulting from the discriminatory policies adopted by hostile Governments at the Central level (which controls the key levers of State power) as well as capital flight by the big bourgeoise.” He goes on to suggest that “[t]he current programmes and policies of the Left Front Government, adopted under severe constraints imposed by the neoliberal policies pursued by the Central Government since 1991, seeks to consolidate the gains made in agriculture and promote industrialisation in order to generate industrial employment to the extent possible. These policies are reviewed and debated from time to time. The recently held 19th Congress of our Party (held in March 2008) debated and adopted an important document on Left led State Governments (attached) which provides the basis of our current programmes and policies.” As usual, Bose tries to hide facts behind the facade of empty rhetoric.

(a) The so-called industrialization policies of the LFG, which the CPI(M) uses as a justification for dispossessing and killing peasants, have come under attack from several left activists, scholars and organizations. They have pointed out that notwithstanding the rhetoric, the policies of the LFG are no different from the neoliberal policy regime being implemented all across India, from the Central to the State levels. What the sympathisers of the LFG want to pass off as a strategy for industrialization is really a strategy for neoliberal industrialization, where the State steps in to sweeten the deal for corporate capital while workers and peasants bear the burden of the whole move. This goes against any sensible strategy of pro-people industrialization and modern economic development.

This is because active, pro-people state intervention through sound policies is essential for making any meaningful dent on the problems facing India today; and this includes, if historical experience is anything to go by, even the achievement of sustainable, broad-based economic growth. In every known case of successful industrialization and economic development, be it England or Continental Europe or USA or Japan or the East Asian tigers, the State has played a pro-active role in directing investments, mobilizing resources to finance that investment, protecting fledgling industries from undue competition from abroad, and so on; it is, therefore, inconceivable that any state, or the country for that matter, can make that transition without State intervention through effective policies for agriculture and industry. The West Bengal government, like much of the rest of India, has been going in exactly the opposite direction, dismantling social safety nets, whittling down public expenditure, privatizing essential services, offering enormous tax breaks to corporate capital, and acquiring resources like land by using repugnant colonial-era laws.

(b) A careful look at the facts show that, despite the claim of the sympathisers of the LFG, West Bengal does not show us the way to fight neoliberalism and “consolidate the gains made in agriculture”. Rather, it is a very good example of how the left should not fight neoliberalism. As argued in detail earlier (http://sanhati.com/front-page/857/) “West Bengal [has] not [been] one of the fastest growing states” in India, despite the contrary claim of CPI(M) sympathisers (http://www.pragoti.org/node/1441); “over the period from the 1980s onwards, West Bengal’s relative ranking in terms of per capita SDP has fallen significantly; in terms of several human development indicators, West Bengal has been losing ground in comparison to other states as well. Broadly it seems to be the case that whereas West Bengal started the decade of the 1980s as a relatively high income Indian state, it has fallen to the rank of a lower-middle income state over the next two decades, precisely when it was being steered by the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government.”

Thus, not only in terms of economic indicators like per capita SDP, but even in terms of broader indicators of human development, West Bengal is not the shining example of left-led growth that sympathisers of the CPI(M) would have us believe. To top it all, the West Bengal government has, of late, been leading in the battle to privatize essential services.

Here are details about it’s relentless bid to privatize health care in West Bengal: http://sanhati.com/front-page/946/

Here are some stories and news items about what is happening to the public distribution system in West Bengal under the LFG:
http://sanhati.com/news/386/
http://sanhati.com/news/415/#11
http://sanhati.com/news/415/#9

(c) The claim that West Bengal has been the victim of capital flight by the big bourgeoisie probably has some truth to it. And how do you think the LFG wants to reverse this? By bending over backwards to invite precisely the big bourgeoisie back into the state! Hence, we have the Salim Group from Indonesia being invited to build a chemical hub in Nandigram, the Tata Group being invited to come and build a motor vehicle factory in Singur, the Jindals being invited to come and build a steel plant in Salboni…If the LFG had invested half of this energy in encouraging small-scale, labour-intensive industries the employment generation capacity of each rupee invested could have been increased substantially. But the LFG seems hell-bent in following the rest of the country in implementing neoliberal industrialization through SEZ’s and tax holidays to big capital and bullets for the people.

(d) The state government had released the West Bengal Human Development Report in 2004. It was edited by Prof. Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, a well-known sympathiser of the CPI(M). The report ended with a chapter which listed 25 suggestions on the future path that West Bengal could follow. It must be noted that in none of those 25 suggestions had it been advised that since the state of the peasants of West Bengal had improved significantly due to land reform, its future strategy should be that of heavy and medium scale industrialisation. On the contrary, it had expressed deep concern that in recent years bargadars and pattadars were losing their land, something which the Left Front government often tends to downplay. The report, which incidentally has got messages from the West Bengal chief minister and the industry minister printed on it, says in its 9th suggestion, “The government should encourage agricultural and non-agricultural based productive activities in the rural areas and in this connection government may consider forming new cooperatives.” (page 214 –15). The West Bengal government, despite Bose’s claims to the contrary, has been moving in exactly the opposite direction in trying to woo big corporate capital; for more details on this see http://sanhati.com/articles/198/

(e) Even during the brief period when land reforms was on the agenda of the LFG in West Bengal, it had left the output market for agricultural produce completely at the mercy of “market forces”. There was no attempt to intervene in this market and this provided ample opportunity for rural traders and local elites to nullify the potential gains from land reform (redistribution of land and registration of bargadars). Noted scholar Barbara Harris-White (2008) drew our attention to this important point in her latest book; this was also referred to in a recent article by Partha Chatterjee (2008). Articles on similar lines have also been published in the local bangla press, especially in Anand Bazaar Patrika.

(3) The fourth and fifth points that Bose makes in his letter to DH relates to incidents that took place in Nandigram over the period of several months. The brutality displayed by the State and the CPI(M) in Nandigram to force peasants to part with their land was truly unprecedented and it led to a widespread condemnation of CPI(M) tactics. Faced with severe criticism, the CPI(M) spin machine went into overdrive, “manufacturing” facts and arguments to justify the Left Front’s actions. One of the “facts” that was given wide currency during this period by CPI(M) sympathisers was what Bose has repeated in the fourth point made to DH: that the State government had already announced withdrawal of the Salim project and that, consequently, no land would be taken from the peasants. Given the facts of the matter, the declaration that no land in Nandigram would be taken was totally disingenuous. It tries to hide the fact that the state government and the party had lost confidence of the people because of the insensitivity they had shown. For details see: http://sanhati.com/news/415/#2

To put the issue of land acquisition in Nandigram in proper perspective, let us remember what happened on 6th and 7th of January. At least six people lost their lives in those two days a result of clashes between CPM supporters and the newly formed BUPC. Why? Because “of the notice issued by the Haldia Development Authority (Nandigram-I block office), dated 28 December, which was circulated to all gram panchayat offices (though not to individual landholders). The notice stated that 27 mouzas of land in Nandigram and two mouzas of land in Khejuri ~ comprising 25,000 acres in all ~ would be acquired for the Salim Group’s proposed chemical hub.” Consequently, a number of villages became out of bounds for government authorities as people feared the government would take away their land under some pretext or other, as it had done in Singur. So, this was the background of February when the LFG apparently announced that the Salim project had been withdrawn and that land would not be acquired. But did this succeed in calming the nerves? Not at all; the air was still rife with apprehensions.

Singur, before Nandigram, had seen it’s fair share of death threats, downright sexist remarks and white lies. One still hears CPI(M) sympathizers state that 90% of land acquired in Singur was mono-cropped land. Brinda Karat, politburo member of CPI(M), had essentiallly made this point when Singur was up in flames. But while Ms. Karat was on this issue she also dropped, rather coyly, that this was “according to Government records”. She conveniently forgot to add that government records have not been updated since the 1970s. Ms Karat also asserted: “Of the 997 acres required, the Government has received consent letters from landowners for 952 acres.” This comes to close to 95.5% of the total land acquired by the government. An affidavit filed by the West Bengal Government on the 27th March, 2007 in response to an order of the Kolkata High Court points to an altogether different reality. “Compensation cheques have been collected for just 650 acres till date. And this compensation does not in any way imply consent, since it is being accepted as a last resort after the fait-accompli of acquisition. And even this figure amounts to around 67 per cent, which is still lower than the 96 per cent claimed by the CPI(M).” For more details see http://sanhati.com/news/415/#2

This brings us to another question: what happened after February? Events of 14th March are all too well known to bear repetition; for details see http://sanhati.com/news/257/. Suffice it is to say not a single police personnel or CPM cadre responsible for the massacre has been charge sheeted or punished so far. This was the precise reason why the opposition has not shown much enthusiasm in the all-party meetings after the 14th March massacre. They have been of the opinion that “they will not attend any all-party meeting till those responsible for the violence and firing are arrested.”
The Nandigram brutalities came close on the heels of Singur, the wanton violence in Singur in the month of December, 2006; for some revealing videos on the action in Singur see:
http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=pxQr1OqGvoM&NR=1

http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=4rQjZQhOFF8

Was it too difficult to see why peasants in Nandigram, having witnessed the Singur brutalities, were apprehensive, why they had completely lost faith on the government and it’s vacuous pronouncements? And so when, at the end of the same month that Singur witnessed police violence for the forcible acquisition of land a notice for land acquisition was served in Nandigram, things naturally flared up.

Of course the violence in Nandigram had been provoked by several extremely irresponsible public statements from high-ranking officials of the party and the government. Recall that on 29th January the Central Committee member of the CPI(M), also the state Health Minister, Suryakanta Misra, was elaborating on the role the opposition was playing in stalling the State Government’s drive for industrialisation in a public meeting at Khejuri (three kilometres away from Sonachura village of Nandigram). His advice to the farmers was simple and sytraightforward: beat the opposition. In his remarkable words: “Winter is retreating and summer is on. Venomous snakes may raise heads from their holes. They may even bite. Keep the staff of the red flag handy. As they spread their hood, strike them. That would treat them fine.” On the same day Benoy Konar, another Central Committee member of the CPI(M) made the infamous “posterior speech”. In Satgachhia, Bardhaman district, he fumed, “we are trying to build a thermoelectric plant in Katoa. They [the opposition] are saying, they would not let us. If Medha Patkar and Mamata Banerjee, even by mistake, go to Katoa to create trouble, thousands of our women comrades will turn their back on them and show them their posteriors.” No wonder, March 14th saw the brutalities that it did led by the “cadres” of the “Communist Party”.

Another point worth noting is the qualification “without the consent of the owner” that was always put, explicitly or implicitly, in notices of the government; it meant that the peasants whose land would be “acquired” had no real say in the matter. The LF government often used a colonial-era law to force unwilling peasants to part with their land. In the context of Nandigram, it was only after the massacre of 14th March, 2007 that the government made the unqualified declaration that no land would be taken. It was not the benevolence of the LF government but the determined struggle of the people that was decisive.

(4) In his sixth point, Bose makes repeats an assertion about the “non-violent land acquisition” in Singur. The videos that we have provided links to above are the only answers we wish to provide to this “fact”; here are the links once again so that you can see for yourself the reality of the “non-violent land acquisition”

http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=pxQr1OqGvoM&NR=1

http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=4rQjZQhOFF8

Bose also claims, with regard to Singur, that the price at which the land was “acquired” was five times the market price; even that is incorrect. The price was only 1.40 times the market price:

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1080920/jsp/frontpage/story_9861298.jsp

(5) In the last point, Bose claims that “[s]everal other industries are coming up in West Bengal, mostly iron and steel industries, which are being built upon land that is unfit for any cultivation. IT industries are also coming up which do not require much land anyway. Therefore, acquisition of farmland for industries is more of an exception than a rule as far as the industrialisation efforts of the LF Government is concerned.” This assertion is hardly borne by the facts.

Rajarhat, near Kolkata, has a story to tell that contradicts Bose’s last claim. Contrary to the claims of CPI(M) sympathizers, Rajarhat was a very fertile agricultural area and all that land was forcibly taken away from the peasants for the purposes of industrialization. Initially, the LF government claimed that the land would be used for a proposed IT hub. But time would tell a different story: real estate speculation and land sharks. For more details of the blood-drenched story of Rajarhat see: http://sanhati.com/front-page/945/

One of the most disturbing facets of the current “industrialization” efforts of the West Bengal government is the transfer of land earmarked for industry to the hands of real estate developers for the creation of integrated cities and gated communities; this is something Bose does not, quite understandably, comment on. Land is acquired at throwaway prices through coercion, murder, promises of rehabilitation and oncoming industrialisation, etc. and sold off at steep profits to huge real estate houses. Some examples in Bengal include: Rajarhat, which has witnessed brutal acquisition over the last decade to transform into a IT hub, Hindmotors, where hundreds of acres are being sold to real estate companies like the Shriram Group, and Dankuni, which is being sold out to DLF.

Conclusion

West Bengal in India is a state which has been ruled by a “Communist Party” for over 30 years now. Right from the beginning in 1977, the “Communist Party” in question displayed it’s social democratic bent, using all it’s energies to “manage” the contradiction between capital and labour rather than making efforts to resolve that contradiction in favour of labour. Over time, even the social democratic bent was eroded and the party has now started championing the interest of capital quite openly, at least in West Bengal. Just like the dominant paradigm of neoliberal industrialization followed elsewhere in India, West Bengal under the “Communist Party” is also treading the same path. Since “accumulation by dispossession” is a characteristic feature of neoliberalism, we see it, unsurprisingly, in West Bengal, as in other parts of India. When this fact is pointed out to members of the “Communist Party”, as DH did in his lectures, they have no other option but to resort to the well-worn lies that the CPI(M) has put so much effort in constructing and propagating; Bose’s response to DH repeats some of those half-truths and untruths. Even a cursory look at the facts gives the lie to Bose’s assertions.

References

Harriss-White, Barbara (2008): Rural Commercial Capital: Agricultural Markets in West Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Chatterjee, Partha (2008): Classes, Capital and Indian Democracy. Economic and Political Weekly, November 15.

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