The Electoral Message of Development, that combines the social with the economic and the industrial with the agricultural and creates low cost jobs can be a step towards peace with justice
I would be labouring the obvious if I were to repeat that the recent elections were fought purely on personalities, not on issues. Only two states brought some issues to the fore. In Tamil Nadu the voters seem to have held the Centre responsible for the perceived neglect of the Sri Lanka Tamils and punished the two Congress ministers for it. Mr Mani Shankar Iyer lost and Mr P. Chidambaram scraped through with a wafer thin margin while the DMK improved its tally. In West Bengal the elections were fought around the issue of development. Though development was mentioned at the national level only in passing, the voters seem to have given the UPA a second chance because of many schemes it had initiated. That has implications also for Assam and the rest of the Northeast.
In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress fought the elections on the promise of combining industrialisation with agriculture. But the party does not have any clear thinking on it. So if it comes to power it can be expected to continue displacing people in the CPM controlled areas just as CPM did it in the TMC constituencies. However, the issue itself is important because West Bengal has the potential to combine the two. After the Left Front came to power, West Bengal ceased to be the most industrialised state in India but it achieved the highest annual agricultural growth at 5.6 percent. This was possible because of the reform of the bargadari (sharecropper) system, focus on irrigation and successful land reforms.
Till then the bargadar had to give 50 to 60 percent of the produce to the landowner, so he lacked motivation to go beyond a single crop. The Left Front pegged the zamindar's share at 25 percent of the first crop and that was to be decided by the tenant. The state built 23 medium and a few hundred minor irrigation dams in the 1980s and 1990s and implemented the land reforms. Out of 2,085,000 hectares distributed to the landless till 1995 all over India, 383,000 hectares (18.4%) were in West Bengal. The first two measures motivated the tenant to grow a second and a third crop. Allotment under the land reforms was mostly to Dalits and tribals. That gave them a stake in agriculture. There certainly was a political motive. Most land was distributed through the CPM-controlled panchayats but the measures were successful.
In 2001 the Left Front promised to industrialise the state in order to create jobs for the youth. However, the state made no effort to combine industries with agriculture. Rich agricultural land was acquired or committed to industry with no consideration for its losers, when rocky land was available in its neighbourhood. By December 2006 the state had committed 296,000 acres to various industries. That included some land allocated to Dalits and tribals under its land reforms. It was taking away with one hand what it had given with the other.
Though the TMC promise to combine agriculture with industry remains vague the issue itself is important in West Bengal as well as in other states. Ways have to be found of combining them as well as social with economic interests. That seems to be the message also at the national level. In 2004 the Shining India campaign of the NDA failed so no party used this slogan in 2009. However, every now and then Dr Manmohan Singh spoke of development as the contribution of the UPA. He could do it because the UPA had initiated many people-oriented schemes such as National Rural Employment Guarantee and Tribal Rights over Forest Land. Their implementation has been weak in many states but if implemented properly they can solve many livelihood-related problems. The message of the voter seems to be that these and other measures should be implemented with vigour and that ways have to be found of combining the economic with the social interests.
Also Assam and the Northeast need to learn that lesson. The annual economic reports show that for the last decade the registered job seekers in Assam have remained constant at 15 to 17 lakhs. The rural youth do not have access to the employment exchanges. So one can assume that the real number of the unemployed is not less than 30 lakhs. In the region as a whole their number exceeds 40 lakhs. That problem has to be solved if the youth are to find hope in the future of the region. The type of industrialisation that is being envisaged cannot achieve that goal. Major industries today take up an enormous amount of land and thus deprive their owners of work on it. But because of mechanisation the cost of producing an industrial job has gone up to Rs 15 lakhs. So the backlog alone will require Rs 600,000 crores and that money is not available.
Equally important is the threat from the 48 major dams proposed to be built in the region within a decade and more later. They will destroy much of the biodiversity for which the region is known and will deprive thousands of persons, mostly tribals, of their land and work in order to turn the Northeast into what Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee called the powerhouse of India and Southeast Asia. But little is being said about people's right to livelihood. Experience in the rest of India shows that dams displace and impoverish thousands of persons, deprive them of access to work and marginalise them. There is no reason to believe that it will be different in the Northeast but that is being ignored.
One does not plead for an end to development. Some big industries and medium dams are needed. But these industries cannot solve the unemployment and livelihood problem. While building a few of them, the main thrust has to be on another type of agriculture, agro-based industries and low cost employment generation by combining agriculture with industry. People-oriented development would require that much production, processing and marketing be done by the local communities. That can also provide an alternative to militant outfits. A study by the Peace Studies Division of Guwahati University shows that unemployment is a major (though not the only) cause for the youth to join the militant outfits. Development that combines the social with the economic and the industrial with the agricultural and creates low cost jobs can be a step towards peace with justice.
Dr Walter Fernandes Director North Eastern Social Research Centre 110 Kharghuli Road (1st floor) Guwahati 781004 Assam
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