The Singur Judgment: Is there another way to understand the politics of industrialisation?

First published on The Dialog.

On August 31st the Supreme Court of India struck down as illegal the acquisition of 1000 acres of prime agricultural land by the West Bengal government on behalf of Tata Motors for their Nano factory in Singur village of Hoogly district. The judgment, coming ten years after the land was initially acquired in 2006, was widely covered in the media. One of the Justices handing down the judgment disagreed with the state government that the land had been acquired for “public purpose” and took the side of farmers whose livelihoods had been taken away from them. The other Justice argued from the perspective of the need for West Bengal to industrialize but nevertheless agreed that the state government had failed to follow the 1894 land acquisition law to the letter.

Disputes such as Singur have generally been framed in terms of “need for industrialization” versus “need to protect livelihoods.” This pits “traditional communities” such as farmers, adivasis, and petty producers of all kinds against “modern industry” such as malls, dams, mines, and factories. On the one side are those who wish to see the country industrialise and modernise, and displacement of these communities is seen as inevitable in this process, the only debate being whether the displaced are compensated and rehabilitated adequately. On the other side are those who argue that industrialization and development will displace these communities from their existing livelihoods but offer them no better alternatives in return, thus making them worse off in absolute terms in order to benefit others who will get jobs in the new industries and consume their products. Unfortunately we have been stuck in this “traditional versus modern” debate for many years with the pro-development camp unable to see anything beyond “adequate compensation” and the pro-people camp unable to offer an attractive and compelling vision of the future.

It is clear to all who are paying attention that the vast majority of the country still earns a livelihood in the petty production sector as farmers, artisans, and petty producers as well as retailers. This is also known as the “informal sector.” The standard of living in these occupations is five to ten times lower than that in the formal sector. For example a typical monthly income in informal jobs is around Rs. 7000 per month compared to Rs. 35000 per month or more for formal jobs. Even where land is not a constraint, modern industry and services have not been absorbing labour at the pace necessary to reduce the size of the informal sector (see my pervious post here on “Jobless Growth”). As long as this remains the case incomes will not rise very much in real terms for this majority. Thus protection of their meagre livelihoods is only a short-term strategy. There must policies and a politics that envisions a rapid improvement in their standard of living without the chimera of hope that they will somehow be magically absorbed into the formal sector.

Luckily this county also has a long tradition of thought and experimentation with industrialisation of various kinds, not only the capital- and resource-intensive, labour-saving kind that has developed in the advanced industrialized countries and that is ill-suited to the conditions here. The Gandhian experiment during the late colonial period was one such. Subsequently, the idea of labour-intensive, small-scale industrialisation caught the imagination of many others including Rammanohar Lohia. Thinkers such as K.R. Datye, author of Banking on Biomass: A New Strategy for Sustainable Prosperity based on Renewable Energy and Dispersed Industralisation, have written provocatively on this. In their book Churning the Earth, Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari recount more examples.

A Gandhian or dispersed pattern of industrialisation does not mean “handicrafts.” It only means an approach that draws upon peoples’ own existing knowledge-base and techniques (“lokavidya”), carries them forward, and puts livelihoods before productivity and local before long-distance wherever a trade-off becomes unavoidable. Such lokavidya-based, community-controlled development is the need of the hour. We must stop fetishizing “glass and aluminum development” as the only kind of development and recognise that such a process as we have launched upon in India destroys much more than it creates in terms of livelihoods, culture, and ecology. In other words, everything that matters. The losers of this process have, for decades, tried to highlight this and have fought against it, but only with very limited successes. This is because the juggernaut of development places in the hands of the winners hitherto unseen material and soft power to be able to effect the outcomes that they desire. In fact, the entire debate on development (both sides of it) is shaped by those who have benefitted from it. The integration into the global economy only rewarded the beneficiaries even more and conferred even greater power and public visibility on them.

Only a politics of knowledge can change this. By this I mean a politics that organises farmers, adivasis, petty producers of all kinds to raise their voice not in defense of their livelihoods, as they have done so far in Singur and other places, but in order to assert the claim that their knowledge is not inferior to any other kind of knowledge; that their practices can constitute the basis for a way forward that genuinely delivers the good life to all instead of delivering it today to the select few and promising it at some endlessly deferred time to the rest. If pro-people struggles against land acquisition and industrialization, such as Singur, Narmada, Niyamgiri and many others assert themselves not as defense of meagre livelihoods but as harbingers of a future India based on industry suited to our conditions they can become future-oriented. They cannot then be seen as anti-development or backward-looking. Needless to say this is not easy and it means taking on not only the domestic beneficiaries of the development process but also global economic forces. But the strength of such movements lies in their size and the knowledge they possess. The Singur judgment, though it does not go this far, combined with the Niyamgiri judgment that ruled Vedanta’s claim on the Dongria Kondh land illegal along with hopefully more such to come, create space for such a politics and also are an opportunity to raise the above issues among the classes who have benefitted from development and globalisation.

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