MOST stories of corporate land grab have a predictable script: with identifiable themes like forced land acquisition, masked by ‘consent’ forged at gun point, handing of precious fertile land to mega corporates are throwaway prices with various other free services thrown in, and finally, if people insist on resistance, batons and bullets to suppress them, with both police and cadres of ruling parties and local goon squads working in tandem with each other.

Some new aspects have been added to the script as people evolve new modes of struggle and take the resistance to new heights. Let us glance at some of the sites of such land grab and people’s resistance.

‘Reliance Power’ at Bajhera Khurd: Relying on Police Brutality

In 2005, farmers of the highly fertile Dadri in Western UP, on the outskirts of the Delhi, found that what was declared to be the world’s largest gas-based power plant was going to come up on their land, to be taken over from them without their consent.

At Dadri, farmers were not opposed to land acquisition for a power project per se; but the rate of compensation proposed was outrageously low. Land in this region costs Rs 13, 500 per square metre, while Reliance had proposed a compensation of Rs 150 per square metre and CM Mulayam Singh had announced a rate of Rs 350 per square metre.

The state government went about acquiring land under the Land Acquisition Act. Significantly, the state government discounted nearly 40 per cent of the land cost to Reliance as part of its industrial policy to attract greater investments. There have also been reports that the stamp duty was waived and Reliance was required to pay only 40 per cent of the cost while the rest was treated as subsidy.

Farmers’ suspicions that much of the 2500 acres of land would be used, not for a power project but for a speculative real estate project, were confirmed further by the plans floated for a Dhirubhai Ambani Energy City.

How was ‘consent’ achieved? As usual under duress: police inspectors from the local station at Pulkhawa regularly visited the village and took away farmers to make them sign papers confirming acceptance of compensation. Those who did not comply were beaten up and hauled off and forced to put thumb impressions on blank papers.

Eventually farmers from Bajhera Kurd, Nandlal Pur, Jadepur, Dehrai, Kakrana, Dhaulana and Mehmendpur (from the villages, where land was being acquired) began a dharna on the outskirts of Bajhera Kurd on 25 November 2005. In July 2006, eight months into the dharna, the villagers decided enough was enough and pulled off the boundary fencing (set up by Reliance Ltd.) from their lands and decided to plough it. They sought support and found it from a few social and political formations like the Jan Morcha, CPI (ML) Liberation, Indian Justice Party and few other social organisations. On 8th July, a panchayat of several villages (sath-chaurasi) was going to be held and land was to be ploughed since they were losing out on livelihood from land as well as compensation.

Despite not having paid the full compensation, or having laid a single brick for construction of the power plant, and reportedly without even have received clearance for their SEZ, Reliance Ltd. filed a writ petition before the Allahabad High Court for protection of “their” project site on the evening of 7 July. This even as the villagers were sitting on dharna not at the marked project site but outside it, close to their homes.

The High Court swung into action and issued directions for taking appropriate measures for the project site’s security. The High Court order was handed over to the Dadri District Magistrate late into the night of 7 July.

The PAC (nearly 150 trucks arrived as reported by the villagers of Dehrai, Kakrana and Bajhera khurd) and began to force themselves into the village with several local goons, who were identified by the village people. The goons were also in khaki uniform but without badges along with other PAC men. This was even while the High Court was still issuing orders. However due to the large number of protestors who had gathered the policemen were unable to push themselves towards the dharna site and began firing.

On 8 July, at 6.00 a.m., the villagers noticed the PAC had crept through the fields and there were fresh reinforcements. The police said they had come to hold talks and gathered the village men at the dharna site and started speaking to them even as the PAC moved forward and started a brutal lathi-charge on the people without any provocation.

Thereafter the PAC entered the Bajhera Khurd village and moved from house to house beating up everyone on sight. The PAC randomly picked houses and broke doors and walls of the houses; women were dragged out by their hair and legs, abused and severely beaten. Women across the village and from various age groups were attacked. The bodies of women, old men, physically challenged and crippled people, and little children were not spared; rather they were singled out for the attentions of the attackers.

Most media gave a most distorted report of the incident; but the few news reporters who did try to cover the brutality were themselves not spared.

A fact-finding report on the Dadri incident by the Forum for Democratic Initiatives observed that “Corporations are dictating to people that they should take what is being offered and when they refuse state machinery, instead of being accountable to the people, acts as the private army of the corporate house and swings into action to unleash looting, molestation, assaults and terror. If this is the model for the setting up of special economic and manufacturing zones, 40 kilometres from the capital of the country, it has ominous implications for the other 150 special economic and manufacturing zones planned around the country and should be matter of concern to all Indian citizens interested in preserving their democratic rights.”

The developments since July 2006 - at Singur, Nandigram and POSCO – have seen those ‘ominous’ implications unfold.

Raigad Farmers on the Warpath Against Reliance

Raigad in coastal Maharashtra is yet another site where farmers have taken a cue from Nandigram, and have succeeded in pushing the State Government onto the back foot. In Raigad district alone no less than none SEZs are due to come up, covering 50, 000 acres of land. The movement has intensified most against Reliance’s proposed SEZ of 10, 000 hectares covering some of the most fertile land in the Pen taluka. The SEZ Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti, a coalition of 24 coastal villages in Raigarh district of Maharahstra, is at the forefront of this struggle, and the struggle has also drawn political forces like the PWP (Peasants and Workers Party) into the movement. Around 4-5 lakh people would be affected by the project, mostly people of the Agri and Katkari tribes and Koli community.

The people here have raised the slogan: “Zamin amcha hakka chi, Nahin konacha bappa chi” (the land is ours not anyone else’s paternal property), and have angrily declared that unlike the farmers of Vidarbha who are committing atmahatya (suicide), they are willing to commit hatya (murder) to save their land.

For the past twenty years, farmers of this region have been fighting for water from the Hetawane dam. Instead of the promised water, they have been offered a Special Economic Zone (SEZ)! The State Government has been acquiring land on behalf of Reliance. In this area, most of the people are small and marginal farmers and about 30 per cent of them are landless. Therefore Reliance’s carrot of a 25 lakh-per-hectare compensation package has not cut much ice with them, since they know very well that the cash will reach very few, and will not replace the livelihood that they get from the land.

A three-member committee constituted by the Maharashtra Congress came out with a report warning that Nandigram would be repeated at Raigad if the Government went on with land acquisition. An embarrassed AICC rapped the State Congress on the knuckles for its “immature and hasty” report, pointing out that this report amounted to an indictment of the Congress itself, since “all the departments related to SEZs were held with Congress - from chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, industry minister Ashok Chavan, revenue minister Narayan Rane and relief and rehabilitation minister Patangrao Kadam all belong to the Congress.” Clearly, thanks to Nandigram, the Maharashtra Congress can see the spectre of peasants’ anger against its own seat of power, and that is what has caused it to back off, leaving Reliance to take the front seat in land grab.

Faced with this militant mood of farmers, and in the wake of the Nandigram fallout, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh issued instructions to the Raigad district collector to halt all land acquisition involving farmers in coastal Raigad. However, land acquisition notices are yet to be officially withdrawn. Meanwhile, it has been announced that farmers can sign MoUs with Reliance directly.

The battle is far from won – since past experience has shown that Governments will do all they can to facilitate companies in land grab even when land acquisition happens at the company’s behest rather than the Government’s. But the farmers’ movement in Raigad shows all signs of determination and unabated militancy.

Kalinganagar/Nandigram in Waiting: POSCO India at Orissa

The BJD-BJP Orissa Government of Naveen Patnaik has been on a spree of signing MoUs with national and international steel majors, indiscriminately handing over mineral rich resources and fertile land to them. Kalinganagar showed how the State was willing to gun down defenceless peasants and tribals to make way for Tata Steel. Since the massacre of January 2, 2006 the people of Kalinganagar have held a continuous siege, preventing the plant from coming up.

The most massive land grab in the State is by the South Korean company POSCO. With the largest FDI yet of around 51,000 crores of rupees, POSCO is to take over 8000 acres of land, directly displacing around 30,000 people from 3 panchayats – Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga, and 20,000 acres of cultivated land will be affected indirectly. Side by side, two iron belt mines of Gandhamardhan and Malangtoli hills of the tribal areas will be given as lease to the company.

POSCO is to set up a massive steel plant at Paradeep, and also, is the first company in independent India to have been given permission to construct its private port at Jatadhari. Apart from the steel plant displacing those who subsist on agriculture, and produce the best quality betel (paan) leaves, and engage in fishing, the port will also damage the coastline, destroy the nesting habitat of Olive Ridley turtles, encroach on mangroves (natural protection against super cyclones and coastal cyclones) and draw water from a watershed which feeds the Bhitarakanika mangrove forests which has the status of a sanctuary. POSCO will extract near about 12 thousand to 15 thousand crores litres of water from zobra and naraj barrage of river Mahanadi, and as a result the farmers irrigating the lands by the canals of Taldanda, Machhagaon, Birupa of Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, and Kendrapada district will suffer drought. Apart from land and the port, POSCO will also hold the regions’ rich mineral resources virtually captive.

In recent times, taking the cue from Nandigram, three villages have barricaded themselves and are living in fear of a confrontation. No less than 20 armed platoons of paramilitary forces are the ready, menacing them with their presence. The presence of the multinational POSCO, the State Government, the paramilitary and the BJD henchmen ganged up against the farmers, fisher-folk and workers foreshadows Nandigram. The struggle committee has declared that a ‘Sishu Sangram Vahini’, which comprises children of the area between the age group of 5 and 15, as well as a women volunteer force will be the first to face the police.

The PM has thrown his weight in with the POSCO project completely, assuring the Orissa CM of the UPA Central Government’s full support.

Reliance-HSIIDC SEZ at Jhajjar

This is one of the biggest SEZs due to come up in the country – a sprawling multi-product SEZ over 25,000 acres of land between Gurgaon and Jhajjar. 1395 acres lf land has been acquired by the State Government in Gurgaon district and transferred to the joint venture company. This land would have cost around 10 crore per acre in the open market – and the SEZ (of which the Government is a partner) has acquired it as undisclosed prices, which are likely to be extremely low. Observers point out that having acquired land worth 13950 crore virtually free, even if the company gives Rs 22 lakh per acre for the rest of 23, 605 acres, it spends only 5193.1 crore and has a straight profit of 8756.9 crore from the deal – all without even starting any business there!

Now, with the 5000 hectare cap on SEZ size, there is talk that either the rule will be waived in this particular case (as Kamal Nath has declared that exceptions are always possible) or it will be circumvented by turning into one large multi-product SEZ and several small ones.

Despite claims that the land is barren, it is apparent that the land is fertile. The company has been buying land in small pockets from farmers some of whom have been fooled into believing that they will not be displaced. Reliance has announced a ‘best ever’ compensation scheme, promising farmers a “share” in the “development”.

But slowly it has begun to sink in for the people of Jhajjar that their land (those parts that they do not intend to part with voluntarily) is bound to be lost since vast areas of agricultural land cannot be allowed to remain as ‘free’ islands in the ‘special’ zones’. Villagers of 22 panchayats have, since 31 December 2006 decided not to sell land anymore to Reliance under the present conditions.

Singur Struggle

At Singur, 957 acres of land was acquired under the Land Acquisition Act by the West Bengal State Government to hand over to the Tatas for a small car factory. When the people’s resistance to corporate land grab erupted there, CPI(ML) was quick to join them. Comrade Tapan Batbyal, member of the CPI(ML)’s Hooghly district committee and West Bengal State committee, was the icharge of the CPI(ML)’s nearly month-long camp at Singur. He played an exemplary role in personally leading the mass resistance against the police-cadre onslaught of first and second December and was seriously injured, arrested and hospitalised along with Comrade Bilas of AISA and others. He gives a brief account of his experience at Singur.

The political camp at Singur

For us the AIALA camp was a necessary base for our independent political work. By the time it was set up, Sajal Adhikari (AIALA leader and party State committee member based in Hooghly district – ed.) had already been established as a natural leader of the movement while Bilas and Chaitali (AIPWA state secretary and party State committee member) had become popular as “our own son” and “didi” (sister) respectively. So there was full cooperation from the villagers. But there was political opposition from constituents of the “Save Agricultural Land Committee” (SALC) — the TMC, SUCI and the Hooghly district unit of CPI (ML) New Democracy — who argued that there should be only one camp with the SALC banner. Even posters were put up around the camp denouncing our “separatism”. Initially such propaganda had some impact on some people Singur but they were quick to accept our position that our independent existence within the movement was necessary to ensure the involvement of friendly left and democratic forces who hesitated to share a banner with the Congress or TMC. People’s support grew so much that when we were about to withdraw that camp after five days, that is on 11 November, the villagers came forward. “Return the pandal decorators’ materials”, they said, “we will build you that camp with our own materials, and we will take care of all your needs.” And that’s what they actually did. So the camp continued right up to December 2, the day Singur was attacked and ransacked by the police-cadre marauders. From the camp we conducted a lively mass political campaign throughout the entire affected area of Singur bloc. The basic content of this campaign was to prepare the masses for the impending attack. The absence of a unified command made it impossible to plan an organised resistance or counter-attack, but the people’s response to our campaign was highly encouraging. In fact we had set up the camp to rouse the people, but immensely more was the inspiration and moral strength we drew from them.

People’s offensive

You know about the midnight attack on the masses staging at peaceful seat-in demonstration at the Singur bloc office on 25 September. The masses, including a large number of women and children, were injured and had to beat a retreat that night. A sort of retaliation came our way on 23 November. The DYFI organised a rally beside the Durgapur expressway as a sort of show of strength. A group of villagers (mostly women) went there to stage a black flag demonstration. Resisted by the police, the women blew their conch shells. Hundreds of people came out of the nearby villages and chased the police away. The DYFI fellows ended the mass meeting in a hurry and got going.

Another militant confrontation took place on 29 November. There was a LF rally (where the smaller constituents also took part) at the Durgapur expressway. Thousands of villagers staged a counter demonstration with black flags, burnt an effigy of LF chairman Biman Bose, and rent the air with angry slogans.

Countdown to the barbaric attack

Just after this rally, the district administration clamped section 144 throughout the entire bloc and banned all meetings and processions. It was clear that the offensive would start any moment now. On 30 November we distributed leaflets at railway stations and nearby areas defying police restrictions and returned to our base to prepare the masses for the battle.

On December 1 the police and administration started the operation — i.e., fencing off the area earmarked for the Tata factory — from the Joymollah (the only village in the area with a considerable CPI (M) base) side. We mobilised as many people as possible from the canal embankment to erect a human wall of resistance. In this we encountered a lot of back-pull, so to say, by some SALC activists who invoked the bogey of section 144. Ultimately we succeeded and the militant spirit of the assembled masses was enough to make the enemy beat a retreat.

Bloody Saturday

After the dress rehearsal, the final assault came on the next morning. A huge police-RAF force in battle gear was taking position on the Durgapur expressway. Brave men and women came down on the fields and the police began a fierce baton- charge. Comrade Bilas and I, long with others, were among the first to be targeted and severely beaten up. Ordinary villagers – among them many women and a number of old people – were also arrested. The police then entered the villages like an occupation army and the sheer scale of the torture you have seen on the TV. But two points I would like to mention here.

One is the extremely touching scene of women and old people on the fields crying out in tears, “we have not sold our land; we are sitting on our own land, why are you beating us like this? Why are you arresting us?” The other is the role of CPI (M) cadres. As during the Seventies, they played the role of police agents on December 2, identifying the main organisers of the movement.

After the terror

Among a total of 49 arrested, a large majority were wounded, many quite seriously. But only four of us where hospitalised, that too after an in inordinate delay. We started a hunger strike in the hospital. The court ordered our release on December 7, but due to some suspicious “technical flaw” we were actually released only on the December 11. Meantime, a great piece of news reached us in jail – that of the successful party procession which broke two successive police cordons and culminated in a highly spirited rally on the road to Singur.

Nandigram: Fissure in CPI(M) Citadel

Nandigram is a Block under the East Medinipur district of West Bengal. Situated on the bank of the Haldi river, it is very close to the port town of Haldia. The West Bengal government proposes to set up an SEZ (a chemical hub) at Nandigram, with 10,000 acres earmarked for the notorious Salim group of Indonesia. In fact, the total plan of the proposed SEZ goes beyond Nandigram into the neighbouring Mahishadal and Sutahata constituencies (22,500 acres of land within the Nandigram Assembly constituency comprising Nandigram and Khejuri blocks and another 13,000 acres of Mahishadal and Sutahata).

Like Singur, the land earmarked for the Nandigram SEZ is also quite fertile. The area is famous for paddy and betel leaf as well as vegetables and fisheries. The region has a high percentage of Muslim population – 61% of the people threatened with loss of land are Muslim. The rest belong mostly to SCs and extreme backward castes.

The First Phase of Assault

Unrest broke out at Nandigram on January 3 when the Haldia Development Authority (HDA), of which the Chairperson is the all-powerful local CPI(M) MP Lakshman Seth, issued an acquisition notice for the proposed SEZ. The peasants, mobilized under the banner of “Nandigram Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee”, took out protest rallies, cut off road links to the area by digging out a portion of the main approach road and by putting road blocks in several places and attacking the police forces who had come there to discipline the agitating peasants.

On 4 January, the West Bengal State Committee of CPI(ML) sent a factfinding delegation of 6 members, including leaders of the party’s West Bengal State Committee, as well as AISA activists from Jadavpur University and Jamia Millia Islamia. The police intercepted and detained them, prevented them from proceeding towards Nandigram and ultimately arrested them on a range of fabricated charges including attempt to murder, arson, and possession of arms and so on.

Following threatening statements issued on television on January 4 by CPI(M) Kisan front leader Benoy Konar, January 6-7 saw the first brutal assault on the protesting peasants. At least six people were killed and several others went missing in a mid-night attack on anti-eviction protestors by CPI(M) cadres at a village called Sonachura near Nandigram. The police forces, which were reportedly stationed at a distance of only a few kilometers away from the place, equipped with about 10 cars and a large contingent of combat forces, stayed absolutely passive. Sections of the press reported that the police were sent only to prevent the exit of people from that place.

It should be noted that all the affected panchayats of Nandigram (seven panchayats – Bhekutia, Mohammadpur, Kendemari, Sonachura-9, Sonachura-10, Shamsabad and Gokulnagar – and one – Kalicharanpur – in Khejuri) are run by the CPI(M) and the CPI. The CPI is however treated very much like a junior partner – while the Nandigram Assembly seat and Bhekutia panchayat are held by the CPI, the Haldia MP actually calls all the shots in tandem with his party MLAs from Mahishadal (represented by his wife Tamalika Panda Seth) and Sutahata.

A sample of the outrageous lie concocted by the police in the FIR against the CPI(ML) fact-finding team:

‘During investigation, it could be revealed that the above accused persons are directly involved in this case and took active part in this incident. During interrogation of the accused persons, they also confessed their guilt before public and also before police regarding their guilt and also assured the Police Party that they will arresting of the rest accused persons and also to recover the snatched rifles, ammunitions and the offending  weapons...’

The ACJM Haldia used the above as a pretext to deny bail, observing that if they were kept in custody, “it seems to me that there is chance of recovering of weapon and arrest of other associates...”

The CPI(M) has claimed that those killed at Nandigram in January were mostly CPI(M) cadres. Well, people like Bharat Mandal (32), Sheikh Salim (22) and Biswajit Maiti (14) were indeed associated with the CPI(M) – the last named in fact hailed from a family of tebhaga veterans – but they were killed by none others than armed CPI(M) goons precisely because they had dared to rise in protest against the government’s eviction order. And if someone like Lakshman Samanta, CPI(M) panchayat member from Sonachura, was killed in retaliation by the masses it was because he was an integral part of the CPI(M)-led armed assault on the Nandigram people. And some people who figured in the CPI(M) list of party cadres killed at Nandigram – Lakshman Mandal and Bhudeb Mandal of Sonachura – have been found to be alive and safe.

For a week after the protests erupted, the CPI(M) and the LF Government kept reiterating that “No notification of land acquisition has been issued”. In the face of the fierce reaction, however, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya eventually beat a tactical retreat, admitting that “It was wrong of the Haldia Development Authority to issue such a notice ... Confusion among the local people is only natural if such a document from a State agency is brought to their notice” (The Hindu, Jan 10), and asking the DM to “tear up the notification issued by the Haldia Development Authority”. To date, however, MP Lakshman Seth, Chairman of the HDA, continues to uphold and defend the notification issued by him.

There remain several questions about that episode that are yet to receive a satisfactory answer by the CPI(M). If the notification by the HDA was indeed responsible for the “confusion” that claimed so many lives, why was no punitive action taken against the HDA Chairman, who after all is an MP from the CPI(M)? Why are the fabricated and outrageous criminal cases still continuing against the CPI(ML) activists?

Along with the admission of a ‘mistake’ by the HDA, however, senior CPI(M) leaders like Biman Bose, backed up by reports in the PD, continued to concoct tall tales of a “conspiracy” having been hatched in a ‘fourstoried house’ by Naxalites, Medha Patkar and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind.

The Second Phase of Assault

Subsequently, on March 14, a massacre by police and CPI(M) cadre followed that surpassed the January assaults in scale and brutality. A 5000- strong contingent of police was deployed ostensibly to ‘restore law and order’. Several newspapers and channels reported that CPI(M) cadres prevented them from entering Nandigram that day. The villagers, apprehensive of a police crackdown, wished to be sure not to give the police any pretext to attack. Feeling that the police would surely not attack defenceless women and children, the latter assembled in the form of prayer meetings of Hindus and Muslims in the maidan between Gokulnagar and Bhangabera. The police force stormed into the area, and began attacking those gathered there. The first to face the assault were women and children.

The police then lobbed teargas shells and fired rubber bullets – not to disperse a violent or unruly mob, but rather to literally create a smokescreen and confuse the crowd of people. Having done so, the firing began. The bullet wounds on the bodies of the people at hospitals are mostly in the waist, chest, back – bullets were cold-bloodedly aimed to kill. Local CPI(M) leaders oversaw the entire operation, and many villagers recounted how several of those in police uniform and helmets wore chappals on their feet, indicating that they were actually CPI(M) goons in uniform.

The official count for those killed is 14 – but a CPI(ML) fact-finding team was told that the count of those missing is massive, and there are reports of people having seen trawlers with dead bodies being driven out of Nandigram to an unknown destination. The CBI’s preliminary enquiries led them to arrest 10 CPI(M) cadres at a brick kiln, where evidence of a huge stash of ammunition and police uniforms were found.

There are several reports of sexual violence and assaults on women and even children. Women have not just suffered bullet injuries; their private parts have also been chopped at with sharp weapons. At least two women have filed complaints of gang rape.

Even till today, people continue to languish without proper medical treatment, and a large number suffer from mysterious eye ailments and near-blindness due to the ‘tear gas’ used on March 14, which seems to have been spiked with some other toxic substance.

March 14 has not happened all of a sudden – it is not a mistake that the LF Government or the CPI(M) has committed on the spur of the moment. Since January, the statements of senior CPI(M) leaders all clearly indicate the ominous threats to the people of Nandigram, and reading them after March 14, they sound like chilling prophecy. CPI(M) CC Member Benoy Konar said “We’ll surround them and make life hell for them”.

Health Minister Suryakant Mishra who is from East Midnapore, had declared “Snakes come out in the summer, you must use the flag like a stick and smash their heads” (see Ananda Bazaar Patrika, 31 January). And in the Kisan Rally of 11 March at Brigade Parade Ground, Buddhadeb also issued a veiled threat that no region would be allowed to hold the development of the State to ransom. These statements are as clear an incitement to and indication of violence as one can get.

Eventually, the WB CM has had to announce that the chemical hub and SEZ will not come up in Nandigram after all – but elsewhere in Haldia. Nandigram won the battle against SEZs – but have paid and are continuing to pay an incalculable cost for that victory. Till date, a civil war rages in Nandigram, and villagers face daily bombardment from CPI(M) cadres, while the local Administration turns a blind eye to the situation. No senior CPI(M) leader or responsible official has yet bothered even to visit Nandigram.

Nandigram underlines the CPI(M)’s inability to carry its own traditional mass base along with its pro-corporate, anti-peasant policies. Undoubtedly, Nandigram is a phenomenon that is likely to grow and spread in the days to come, and has created a model of resistance that others have begun to learn from.