Monday, April 09, 2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

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Sour-ing Mercury said...

now lets look at it this way .
Maintaining a fixed percentage for agricultural land and not encroaching on these under the pretext of development is a need.

And unless a strong land acquisition policy from the government is not set, ( force included ) there will actually be no development .

Consider this .. if oil is struck in a agriculturable land, who decides the value of the land ? The farmer or the government ? By default the land becomes national property - not the individuals .

9:00 AM  
vk said...

I think there is a larger problem of weaker individual property rights behind these problems of land acquisition. I am no expert on law, but I dont think the individual right to property has as much legal standing as corresponding rights in the US. This has also quite a bit to do with India's recent past of land redistribution and other socialistic rules. For better or worse, when in the 60's and 70's the govt came in conflict with the supreme court on issue of land reform and redistribution (and similar issues like the question of privy purses), the legislative branch went around the judgements of the court through parlimentary legislation (and probably constitutional amendments?) which in the longer term have changed the nature of property rights in India. I hope someone else with more knowledge on this will comment on the matter.

An additional and more evident problem with Nandigram is that the communist party in Bengal is essentially a mafia which controls all aspects of administration, and it is not entirely surprising to me that they went ahead in the fashion they did in Nandigram, because this is their standard mode of operation in Bengal. With regard to the capitalist angle, the present CM has made attempts to break with the prevailing wisdom of the Communist party, and is probably a better CM for it. However, I would also not be surprised if there was a degree of corruption in the deals for the SEZ on the part of the communists.

I am personally in favor of industrialization and acquiring agricultural land for it, but govt in India has a notoriously poor record of compensating the people whose land is being taken away and I think this is shameful and unfair. I also do not think taking over land by force without adequate compensation is acceptable. India is not China after all.

7:49 PM  
Sourav said...

In Delhi, the family of a friend of mine moved out of a locality called Chattarpur because the MCD demolished the only vegetable market close to the area. I guess people don't like the idea of driving down to buy groceries, vegetables, etc for the whole month. As a result of more people moving out, the housing development of the entire area was stalled since there was nothing within walking distance.

The same thing happened in a locality called Chittaranjan Park, which is also known as Little Calcutta. The MCD demolished the market there, and you can no longer eat gupchups (golgappas) and singras (samosas) on the roadside, or go the fish-market. Whereas the place did cause some traffic congestion, it was also a very popular place - something like the Italian market in Philly.

8:22 PM  

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