Since even the chief minister of Bengal admits that violence was used in Singur to acquire land against the wishes of farmers who owned and/or worked it, there’s virtually nobody who claims otherwise (except our favourite newspaper).
So the line that goes is that it is the state government which botched it up. If only you had allowed the Tatas to acquire land on its own, if only the land acquistion act didn’t require the Evil State to acquire the land… market forces of demand and supply would have prevailed.
I support that idea, despite having seen in Jharkhand private companies cheat farmers into selling their land (to the state government!) even when they didn’t want to, or at prices much lower than those fixed by the government and mentioned in all the legal papers. I support the idea of private industry cajoling farmers to give up land, provided the state is present in the transaction as a regulator and is not completely absent as though it was a shopkeeper selling soap.
(This then leads to the argument for property right, basically not allowing the state to acquire land at will – my problem with which is that it is dogmatically used to argue against land reforms as well.)
However, are the Tatas not be blamed at all for what happened in Singur, as, amongst many others, Shruti Rajagoplan writes:
The most important thing about the market is that it is an alternative to violence. When people could pillage and plunder the market provides a way of resolving conflict. The problem with Singur is that the market alternative is unavailable. The government has ensured through that people cannot directly interact with each other; that farmers cannot sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes and so on. This is the reason for the violence. [Link]
She uses that argument to say that the Tatas can ‘hardly’ be blamed. Rahul Siddharthan also writes that the Tatas can hardly be blamed. But I find it difficult to not see the Tatas as being equal partners in the violnce at Singur.
Then, as Prem Shankar Jha writes:
Was there no way of making the landholders and sharecroppers in Singur beneficiaries of ‘development’ instead of its victims? There was, but the Tatas never even considered it and took refuge in the legal plea that they were not involved in the acquisition of the land.
To see how easy it would have been to co-opt the landowners and sharecroppers, one needs to ask just one counterfactual question: what would have happened if the Tatas had decided to set aside just one quarter of 1 per cent of their annual sales revenue and distributed it as an annual royalty to the owners and sharecroppers, for the use of their land? With an annual turnover of Rs 5,000 crore (from 500,000 cars), the royalty would have amounted to Rs 125,000 per acre per year to be split between landowners and sharecroppers. To recover this added outlay, the Tatas would have had to increase the price of their car by only Rs 250. [Hindustan Times]
The truth is that the Tatas chose Bengal and Singur because of the attractive package being offered to them – land lease at a throwaway price being only one of the components of the deal which the Bengal government prized almost like a tourist attraction for industrialising Bengal at lightening speed. The Tatas could see how the land was being acquired, how the farmers were being cheated, beaten up… and far from suffering from the guilt of abetment, or coming up with a soultion to make the situation like the one Jha suggests, Ratan Tata wants us to denounce Mamta Banerjee and praise Narendra Modi. On the violence faced by the farmers the Tatas have said on record that according to them the acquistion process was fair, but they now want us to pity them for the limited, tactical violence that drove them out from Bengal to Gujarat, which by the way didn’t cost them much because they had never paid much for the land anyway.
Forget free market principles for a moment. Within the paradigm of the land acquisition act, within the scheme of things that we have had at present, how can anyone say with a straight face that the Tatas can ‘hardly’ be blamed?
PS: Read also this excellent post by Rahul Siddharthan.