Sunday, October 05, 2008

The more things change

On this blog, I tend to stick to faff, and not just because I’m shallow, superficial and petulant. I (still) have a day job as a civil servant. My conditions of service include certain restrictions on speaking on public issues. But sometimes I just have to let off some steam.

I worked for six years in the industries department in West Bengal. This was on the cusp of the turn-around, when my smart-alec friends equated my department with the Swiss navy. It required a change in mind-set, more so because I was straight out of a district posting. But it was interesting. I spent the better part of two years traipsing around the state and the country with my bag of samples, holding my tongue and patience when faced with supercilious CEOs, putting together “data-sets”, making endless presentations, negotiating with brash investors (the kind who’ve suddenly made the transition from trader to industrialist). And I made a big mistake. I started believing in my work. Not wise for a career civil servant.

I was only a small part of a large team, but I felt good when the results started to show. For a while, we all believed in the change, in the new Bengal. Which is why the Singur fiasco hurts all the more.

The basic issue was the right to property. Can the State take away your private land for a public purpose if you don’t want to sell it? I’d say yes, up to a point. You may not agree with the purpose, but the State has to (theoretically) act for the greatest good of the greatest number. But as I said, only up to a point. And in any case, the compensation for taking away your property should be at least equal to market levels.

What constitutes public purpose? Building a highway (or an inter-galactic bypass – ask Arthur Dent), or a sanitised zone, or even an industrial estate. Is it public purpose if the industrial estate is to be privately owned and operated? On balance, no. The private entrepreneurs can negotiate and purchase their own land. The State should ensure speed and transparency, publish clear estimates of land value, speed up documentation and transfer.

There’s a catch. Once industry starts buying up land, prices shoot up. Fine, pay more – that’s the law of the market. But what if you buy 980 acres out of the 1000 you need, and then get stuck because of 20 acres right in the heart of the project area? Could be any reason – price negotiation, political pressure, sheer cussedness. It’s happened to me, a 200-acre project was stuck for months because of 9.47 acres. So does the State have a responsibility to step in and sort out these problems for a huge private project? In the Singur case, did the State do the right thing by being pro-active and acquiring land themselves?

Perhaps not. But right or wrong, the whole process could have been far more acceptable given greater transparency. Why didn’t the West Bengal government make public at least the broad terms of the agreement with the Tatas? If we can’t see it, we can’t trust it. So up to this point, Govt. acquisition for private use = negative marks and lack of transparency = negative marks. 2-0 against the Govt., so far.

Having made these mistakes, could they still have made the best of a bad deal? Most certainly. By offering compensation at market rates or better and publicising it. They could have recouped the extra expenditure from the Tatas, maybe called it a speed surcharge, development costs, whatever. In a project of this size, one can’t have full consensus. But the Govt. could have more effectively addressed the grievances of the unwilling land-losers. That would have reduced the opposition to the project and the political fall-out.

Now to the specifics. Once the Opposition had made their point about adequate compensation for land-losers, once the Governor had stepped in and brokered a compromise, why did the process fail? First, because of one woman’s insistence that 300 acres of land within the project area would have to be returned to farmers. Bloody ridiculous. Much more honest to come right out and say, take your project and sod off, we don’t want you here. Second, because the Govt. could not deal separately with the Opposition’s demands – a political issue – and their methods, which broke the law of the land. Perhaps a third reason too – despite the huge media criticism of the Trinamool actions, this Govt. has never had any clue of public relations or media management.

End result – the project is stalled, 1000 acres of land are now useless and a few thousand residents of Singur are bankrupt. In effect, the last two months have pi… washed away most of what we worked for in those years. Yet again, vindicates my decision about my last career move. But it still leaves a very bad taste.


km said...

Hear, hear.

progga said...

Couldn't agree more.
What is the last career change, btw?

austere said...

Now watch Na Mo bend over backwards to steamroller any opposition and get this project for the home state.

No,I don't like the man or his methods.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks for the insider's view of the Na-no(t)-happening-anymore fiasco. We, from the outside, can only rave and rant and curse and hurt. And, like scratching a scab, compulsively read up on any post/paper that tries to sense of this pullout (beyond thinking in circles, 'why does it have to happen in Bengal only?').

Anonymous said...

Scary things.

(a) There is a outer fringe that is more stupid than the CPI(M)'s definition of communism.

(b) The people who have perfected the art of abuse of democratic protest themselves have no answer to the loonies.

(c) There are basically two choices to the people of Singur : pesticide suicides or Naxal mindless outrage against the haves.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

KM, what's your take?

Progga, moved to the Govt. of India 2 years ago.

Austere, he's still better than That Woman.

SS, because we don't take hard decisions?

Anon, one more choice - take the right decisions for the right reasons.



Dude, Land is not going to go waste in Singur. 700 acres is a bloody good area for many industrialists. What I have written in my blog is coming true. Watch this space ....