The term 'eviction' has become a familiar one during the past two decades, as millions of people have been driven away from their lands and homes, against their wishes. Even so, the direct involvement of the government of West Bengal and cadres of the ruling party in the forced evictions at Nandigram and Singur - to provide land for industrial projects there - struck a different chord. This was not the graden variety eviction of India; that this action by the government crossed even the usually generous leash provided to eviction policies was apparent in the dissent one observed among intellectuals and scholars - like Sumit and Tanika Sirkar, who gave away their prize money from the Rabindra Puraskars (awarded by the State Government in 1998 and 2004 respectively) to the Nandigram Relief Fund.
Another noteworthy response to this instance of forced displacement was the active participation of documentary filmmakers, who rushed to Singur and Nandigram to capture actual footage of public outcry - mainly from women - and police repression of the protests. Free Bird Productions, a Kolkata-based documentary unit that makes cultural, ethnographic and documentary films, has made two of the more noteworthy films. The first is Whose Land Is This Anyway, covering the events at Singur, and the second is This Land is Mine, on the Nandigram crisis. Ladly Mukhopadhyay has directed both films.
Questions left unanswered
Mukhopadhyay raises very pertinent and uncomfortable questions through the visuals, comments and expert opinions that pepper the film. An important concern is the loss of livelihood. The West Bengal Government handed the Tata Group a plot of 997 acres to establish an automobile factory here. This will impact not only the 5000-strong peasant population of Singur, but will also endanger the lives and livelihoods of working peasants who come from neighbouring villages everyday, small tradesmen, shopkeepers, hawkers and everyone else, with the total number of affected persons estimated at 50,000. How many of them can the Tata factory employ? Not more than 800-1000 people, say the Tatas themselves, although they argue that some related economic development around the factory may create more jobs. The government has prepared no alternative channels of employment for the great majority, however.
Ladly Mukhopadhyay and his crew filming conversations with locals.
The farmlands of Singur are cultivated right round the year; their fertility is indisputable. The paddy, jute, potato and vegetable crops of these lands are among the best in the state. The prevailing market price for land is three times higher than what the displaced people are being offered by the state. In any event, says one angry young woman, "We don't want compensation. We want our livelihoods back. We don't want to work in factories. We want to remain peasants." Her sharp anger contains an important question - does the state have a right to say whether a person should be a farmer or a factory worker? Shouldn't that be the choice of the individual himself?
Perhaps because the state has not bothered to answer this question, a number of other mishaps have followed. What might have been a manageable transition from farming to industrialisation has instead become a battle filled with images of police lathi charging the local populace, teargassing them, and imposing draconian provisions of law on protesters.
This Land is Mine, shot and edited almost immediately following the March 14 carnage, begins with the statement, "This ballad is dedicated to the sprit of the people fighting against forcible acquisition of their house and hearth in the name of industrialisation all over the world." Nandigram, located in East Medinipore district in West Bengal, has a population of 185,000 of whom 60 per cent are Muslims and another 30 percent are Backward Castes. The place is conspicuous more by the facilities it lacks than those that it has. It has no electricity, no safe drinking water, no paved roads, no basic health care or sanitation. It is quite unlike Singur in every way; the only similarity is that here too thousands of people are being asked to change their way of life, to accommodate a pet project of the state - in this case a chemical hub for an Indonesian group.
The film records the arguments presented by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the CM of West Bengal, speaking in favour of these projects. He notes that 63 per cent of the state is agricultural land, and only 1 per cent is fallow, compared with a national average of 17 per cent. Presumably, this means any new project will involve some displacemnt of peasants. But his argument goes further: "Income from agriculture is reducing, so we cannot stop growth because over the years the population has increased several times over." But here too, an underlying question remains unaddressed: why did he not consult the local population, and take them into confidence before embarking on these projects?
Blood on the streets
An elderly woman in the film says, "we will give our blood, we will give our lives, but we will not give our land'" again and again. Maulana Siddiqullah Choudhury, a local political leader indignantly asks, "How many lies will you tell? Stop your lies", following the official report about the people who died in Nandigram in the police firing on March 14.
The count of victims, and the scale of police violence remain disputed, with protestors and the government accusing each other of selective arguments and claims. But one thing is true: the anger of the masses was so great that 3000 party workers at Nandigram were forced to take shelter in Kolkata. The film captures Bibhash Ranjan Chakrabarty, a committed theatre activist who says, "I feel hopeful that the people of West Bengal have finally awoken from their sleep to realise that we are wrong." Around 50,000 people gathered at a public meeting at Sonachura â an incredible example of public uprising against the government.
The film is strung together with threads of an old folk song that runs through the narrative like a comment, a character and a metaphor. "Don't kill me please," says a cringing and frightened young girl to theatre person Saoli Mitra who visits her at the hospital, offering just a glimpse of the fear psychosis that grips them.
Each of around 40 minutes duration, Whose Land Is It Anyway and This Land is Mine, offer strong indictments on the State government's industrial policy through telling graphics, first-person interviews with intellectuals, social activists, and common people, along with actual footage of the locales in the aftermath. The beautifully enunciated commentaries in impeccable English (Ananya Biswas) are a little out-of-place with the human rights agenda that is culture-specific and ethnographic at the same time. Yet, the films succeed in carrying their common message across. While new eras always replace old ones, no plan for a shift from agriculture to industry can ethically, politically and economically justify itself if those affected are not taken into confidence.