Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Co-existence of agriculture and industry

Events taking place in Singur (West Bengal) have been dominating the news in Indian media for the past couple of months. To recap, West Bengal government acquired farm land totaling 997 acres from the local population and handed it over to the Tatas to setup an automobile industry. The Tatas hope to produce the world's cheapest car 'Tata Nano' from this plant. If and when they do so, it will be a proud moment for every Indian and it could very well transform India into a major low-cost automobile producing destination. That would eventually mean a complete transformation of the livelihood of people living in and around Singur. However, all these dreams are about to be gutted due to the agitation of the Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee. She claims that most of the land (about 300 acres) has been acquired without the assent of their owners. She demands a return of this land. The WB govt cannot return this land without effecting the project. The Tatas need most of the 997 acres to setup the mother plant with all the ancillary plants coming around its vicinity. So, if the WB govt chooses to return these 300 acres, the Tatas would very well leave the state and setup the plant elsewhere.

All this brings to central question of whether industry and agriculture can co-exist without impinging on each other. In my opinion, it is not a question of one losing over the other. Both can and should co-exist for the prosperous future of our nation. All it needs is a central policy that lays down the approach each state govt should follow in allocating or acquiring farm land for industrial purposes. Each state government should develop a land use plan earmarking land for various purposes such as industry, agriculture, communications and service sectors. The Land acquisition act should be suitably amended to ensure fair compensation to all those farmers losing their land. The farmers must be engaged through the entire process of acquisition. Referendums such as the one held in Raigad Maharashtra could be held to guage the mood of effected farmers. Once the farmers accept the acquisition, they should be involved in the process that decides the compensation. And finally, the local population should be provided a stake in the industry through jobs or as shareholders in the company.

Industry will ensure non farm income for the rural population. Mass suicides could be averted if the farmers could be provided assured income and work security. When they lose a crop due to flooding and so on, they could resort to non farm labor in the local industry. China provides an excellent example as to how an all round human development is possible when work and income is assured. In the 1980's China launched a two-pronged strategy to improve the lives of their rural population. First, steps were taken to improve the yield of their crops by setting up good irrigation infrastructure and using latest technologies. Today, the average yield of Chinese farms is twice that of Indian farms. Second, Township and Village Enterprise(TVE) movement was launched to shift a 100 million farmers to non farm employment sector. This transformed China into the factory of the world. This strategy completely transformed the lives of their rural population. As a proof, the child malnutrition rates of China dropped to an impressive 7% while that of India is currently 46%.

Thus Industry and Agriculture should prosper together if we are to see a developed and hunger free India. We should not destroy the future of the young rural population by denying the fruits of rural industrialization. They will not forgive us if events such as in Singur take place on a regular basis. Diversification of rural employment is the key. It should be spread across all the sectors - primary, seconday and tertiary. Only then can we ensure quality life to the rural population.