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Amartya Sen's blow to Left Front policy

Amartya Sen's blow to Left Front policy

Author: Uday Basu
Publication: The Statesman
Date: January 4, 2009
URL: http://www.thestatesman.net/page.news.php?clid=4&theme=&usrsess=1&id=238841

Year 2009 ended badly for the CPI-M. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whom the homegrown Marxists look upon as one of the champions of their political creed, virtually dealt a knockout punch to their controversial industrialisation initiatives in general and the aborted Tata Motors small car project in particular.

Almost at the same time, far from the city's madding crowd, a small landowner, Mr Probir Roy, supervising the threshing of paddy grown on his land in Birbhum district, nailed the Marxists' lies about stagnation in agriculture and the imperative need for industrialisation on farm land. He traced the root of the current turmoil in rural Bengal to the Marxists' land reforms that led to severe fragmentation of land.

If the economist came to his conclusion after poring over weighty tomes and documents, the hard-working owner of agricultural land could see through the folly of the ruling combine with his field experiences.

For the past two years, CPI-M leaders starting from Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to lower level party functionaries had been tireless in their propaganda that far too many people were engaged in agriculture and the yield was too inadequate. The only way to generate employment for "thousands of educated youth in rural and urban areas" was to set up industries through acquiring "wasteful" farmland.

"Factories can't come up in the air", was the common refrain of the Marxists of all denominations to justify their clarion call of evicting farmers from their fertile lands so that industries could be set up.

The statistics reeled off by the chief minister can't be wrong, since they are backed up by the findings of various central and state agencies. But true to Marxist tradition, Mr Bhattacharjee never told the whole truth. The yield from land is bound to be low as a logical corollary to the much-hyped land reforms policy the Marxists implemented since they came to power in 1977.

When they effected the reforms, they believed they were ushering in a revolution of sorts as big landlords were being cut to size and small and marginal farmers and landless labourers were being freed from the clutches of oppressive jotedars (rich peasants).

What was the upshot of this revolution?

In the language of the small landowner, the land reforms have created a situation where only those who have other sources of livelihood can hope to get reasonable returns from land. But, those who solely depend on their landholdings can hardly ever rise above the subsistence level.

"According to the land ceiling act an individual farmer can own a maximum of 18 bighas of land, a family of five 35 bighas and for extra members two to two and a half bighas each not exceeding a total of 52 bighas. If land weren't fragmented in such a manner one could have invested considerable amount of money for irrigating a large tract of land ensuring greater yield. But such investment is out of the question on small plots earmarked by the ceiling," Mr Roy said.

Therein lies the rub.

It's entirely wrong for Mr Bhattacharjee and his comrades in arms to blame agriculture for its low returns and project industrialisation as a panacea for economic ills. They created this sorry rural economy by splitting land in a way that has eventually rendered it far less productive.

This is not to hold brief for big landlords or exploitation of rural poor by rich peasants. What Mr Roy sought to demonstrate was the inherent weakness of the Marxists' land reforms policy that in the ultimate analysis is responsible for the stagnation in agriculture.

There's no harm for the Marxists to admit their mistakes and try to rebuild the system. This was precisely the second theme that Professor Sen elaborated at the debate in the presence of the chief minister, several of his Cabinet colleagues and other Left leaders.

The force and bluntness with which he spoke his mind sounded intriguing and left people wondering why he sought to debunk the top CPI-M leaders in public in such a fashion.

Describing himself as a fellow traveller of the Marxists, Professor Sen said that since his student days at Presidency College he had been adhering to Leftist thinking and "nothing has happened to make any reappraisal of that position". Having said this he stunned the audience by saying that the process of de-Stalinisation was being carried out in Russia, Vietnam and other places, but surprisingly the CPI-M hadn't openly decried the wrongs of Stalin. "There's no harm in admitting mistakes," he said.

As if to rub salt into injuries, Professor Sen said land acquisition for industrialisation can only be "the last recourse" and that the Tatas should have bought land from the farmers for the Singur project as part of the dynamics of market economy especially when they could pay huge amounts for buying the British steel major.

Such a position is not only a marked departure from Professor Sen's earlier stand on the issue, but is diametrically opposite to his Marxist friends and admirers' view who have been advocating that industrialisation can't be done without acquiring farmland.

The question that automatically arises is: Was the whole show of turning the CPI-M's industrialisation policy virtually on its head stage-managed? Or, are the Marxists having a second thought on their pet industrialisation overdrive?

The latter can be convincing only if an economist of Professor Sen's stature lends his voice to it. Is it for this reason that the CPI-M heavyweights invited him to deliver the lecture and contradict their own policy so that they can suitably modify it and attribute the change to Professor Sen and economists of his standing?

Perhaps this is the only course left for the Marxists to extricate themselves from the predicament they are in with the Opposition wresting vast swathes of their support base slowly but steadily.

If that is true, it's rather too late. The damage is done.

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