Fighting Neo-liberalism in Bengal

www.sanhati. com



1. Introductory Words
2. How are you, Chandmani, after the Change?
3. Ranihati – an SEZ silently in the making
4. Tea garden closures, underfed families, and starvation in Bengal – some hard facts
5. The Chemical Hub – what are the socio-economic costs and why should we bear them?

Introductory Words

We are pleased to bring out the second issue of the Sanhati newsletter. Sanhati is an organization of activists, students and professionals dedicated to fighting neo-liberalism in India , with a special focus on Bengal where the nominally “leftist” government is spearheading a neo-liberal assault on the lives and livelihoods of the poor and working people. One of the objectives of Sanhati is to translate and publicize the articles on developmental economics and politics and peoples’ movements that regularly come out in the vernacular press in India. Much of this rich body of information and analysis remains inaccessible to people reading the mainstream English media, or for whom the internet is the main source of information. In this issue of the newsletter we have four such articles which are either translations of or based on articles which originally appeared in the vernacular press. We are committed to creating a platform where the voice of the progressive vernacular press, in many cases that of activists on the ground itself, reaches more and more people and strengthens the common struggle against neo-liberalism.

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How are you Chandmani, after the ‘Change’?

An Eyewitness Report on the present state of Chandmani Tea Estate by Samik Chakraborty, Translated by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati


Do you recall the ‘Chandmani’ saga? It was the year 2003. We were introduced to new jargon by our ‘proletarian’ Left Front government – Satellite Township. A modern township in close proximity to a big city. This project of usurping the land of Chandmani Tea Estate to build a lavish township in the outskirts of Siliguri (in the northern part of West Bengal) and the events that followed soon exposed the true identity of the LF once more. An echo of the recent euphoria of ‘industrialization-development’ that is now centered around ‘Singur-Nandigram’ and the corresponding ‘inevitability’ of forceful land acquisition can in fact be heard four years back in history when Chandmani was ‘CHANGED’.

If you take the road to Matigada from Siliguri, it won’t be long before you reach Chandmani. About 551 workers earned their livelihood from this tea-estate built in 1929 covering a huge tract of land. This tea-estate had the same story to tell as the others in the area. During the British rule, the ‘adivasis’ from Bengal-Bihar-Orissa were made to work in these gardens as bonded labourers. Contemporary law, however, made this work hereditary. In 1998, Jyoti Basu entered into an agreement to scrap the garden and set up a satellite township instead. The owner of Chandmani had another garden in Subalbhita. The workers fought hard to save Chandmani and their livelihood; but ultimately some of them took alternate jobs offered to them in remote Subalbhita. At different points of time, the CPI(M) as well as the Congress did promise to fight on behalf of the struggling workers, but eventually each one of them started singing the tune of the garden-owners. The workers finally launched their struggle under one common united banner. It was 26th of June, 2003 when a huge armed police force came to take possession of the garden. The workers from their colonies also gathered and put up a brave face against the police aggression. Police first fired tear gas shells and then bullets, indiscriminately. Two of the protesters, Ranjit Jaiswal and Ram Bhagat were killed in police firing. Thus, the Buddhadev government achieved its first milestone in its quest of development at the cost of the lives and livelihood of the ‘disposable’ workers.

So we wonder how Chandmani is now, after four years of ‘development’? It is to find the answer to this question that we landed in the ‘changing’ Chandmani. The sign board reading ‘Chandmani Tea-Estate’ still flanks the road from Siliguri to Matigada. All along the right hand side of the road the glittering township – the Uttarayan Housing Complex can be seen to expand. On the left hand side one can locate new sign boards heralding the enigma of ‘Software Technology Park’. Leaving all the shine behind, we went on along the earthen trail towards the workers’ colony. Along that ‘kuchcha’ road, huge tracts of land of the Chandmani tea-garden lay guarded by barbed fences. Some one told us that during the acquisition in 2003, the government under police supervision had employed hundreds of labourers from outside to weed out the tea-plants from that vast stretch of land.

Just at the entry of the workers’ colony, some women were found selling haria (a kind of local liquor). They were erstwhile tea-pickers in the garden. In a voice of repentance they explained that they don’t really have an alternate livelihood. At the time of taking over, a lot was talked about compensation, alternate land, job in the construction activity of Uttarayan. A large number did not receive any compensation. The ones who did, exhausted it all in renovating their dilapidated dwellings or in similar such emergency activities. A few did get land too, but soon the garden-owner declared it to be impossible for him to provide any more land; he pointed towards Siliguri-Jalpaiguri development authority to arrange for rest of the required land. It’s redundant to mention here that such land transfers have not even been processed, forget about registration and other legal stuff. And how many tea-workers did manage a job in the construction work? Out of the hundred plus workers who are still alive or have stayed back in Chandmani, only 5-7 did actually get a job. In the mammoth construction activity of Bengal Ambuja, the majority of the contractors are from outside the region, and so are the workers they employ – local tea-garden workers are not welcome here. There is no standard rate of wage labour. It varies from 70-90 rupees a day, and there is a maximum of 20-22 days of work in a month. We talked to a lot of people out there who had themselves worked in the garden in various capacities as tea-pickers, factory workers and grass-cutters, or had parents that had done so. Once they were all permanent workers, but now the future is bleak. Word is out that soon their colonies will also be devoured by the ever-growing township.

In a local tea-stall we asked the evening crowd what the established political parties has done for them. The retort was unanimous. ‘All those pimps had finally declared that the garden had to go. Uttarayan is for the ‘big people’, and that is now their only concern.’

With the setting sun on our shoulders we passed the tea-garden office and the factory ruins to come up to the main road. There we met the son of ‘Shaheed’ Ram Bhagat. Luckily, the chap had managed to secure the job of a peon at Uttarayan at a monthly remuneration of 800 rupees. Before we left, we thought of for once witnessing the great show of development – ‘Uttarayan’ itself. A few construction workers accompanied us. At the very entrance, security stopped us. Maybe they realized that we were not really in tune. We were asked to get permission from the ‘office’. Who knows where the search of the office will lead us to. Office to Ashok Bhattacharya… Ashok Bhattacharya to Buddhadev Bhattacharya… Buddhadev Bhattacharya to Harsh Neotia…. The glowing neon lights summarized it all. ‘Uttarayan…… Siliguri is Changing’. True, it is changing. We feel it in our blood.

This article originally appeared in ShramikShakti, August 2007


Ranihati – an SEZ silently in the making

By Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati (based on a report by Sushanta Bose and Pradip Roy, Shramikshakti, August 2007)


The West Bengal government plans to establish a special economic zone (SEZ) in the Ranihati area of Howrah district. Hindustan Foundries, belonging to the Hyderabad-based Ramoji International corporation is going to be the developer of this SEZ. The government plans to bring the small foundries located in the Dasnagar-Tikiapara area of Howrah into this “foundry park”. Recently, the union government has also given its go-ahead. As a result, around 1000 acres of agricultural land is being acquired for setting up this SEZ, a major part of which is fertile land bearing two crops per year. Various machinations of acquiring the land from the farmers are going on. Reportedly, already 50% of the land has already changed hands from the farmers.

The central government has been flip-flopping about the mechanism to be followed to acquire lands for SEZs. After the violence in Nandigram, the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) decided that companies setting up SEZs had to acquire land on their own directly from the farmers. Later, it decided that in order to get large tracts of contiguous land, the state governments can acquire land under “special” circumstances. With this confusion going on, land sharks are on a land grabbing spree at the sites of proposed SEZs. In the Ranihati area, the local people say that numerous land sharks and middlemen have jumped into the fray, which includes members of all political parties from the left to the right, who are out to make a profit from increasing land prices. The members of the ruling CPI(M) have been threatening the farmers with the example of Singur where a strong peasant movement has been unable to prevent the forcible acquisition of land for setting up the small car factory of the Tatas. There is a rudimentary save agricultural land committee in Ranihati, but it has not yet been successful in mobilizing the peasants on a large scale against land acquisition. However, there is considerable opposition to land acquisition in the area, mostly by small farmers who are dependent on the land for their livelihood. Although the government had organized a land acquisition camp, the farmers had not attended it. On the other hand, many absentee landlords, or landowners who feel that they are not getting the proper share of the crop from the sharecroppers or bargadars, think that it is profitable to sell off the land. The situation is similar to Singur. However, because of the prevailing confusion, misinformation and the participation of local members of all political parties in the land grab process, the farmers are not yet organized into a strong movement to oppose the acquisition of land for setting up the SEZ. They are not even aware of the polluting potential and the environmental impact of the foundry industry. Ranihati is an SEZ silently in the making, dispossessing peasants of their lands and livelihoods.


Tea garden closures, underfed families, and starvation in Bengal – some hard facts

By Ashok Ghosh, State General Secretary, UTUC. Translated by Soumya Guhathakurta, Sanhati. Sept. 5, 2007


There are 14 tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district, 2 in Darjeeling district. The number of unemployed tea garden workers (in these 2 districts) is almost 20,000. In the closed tea gardens basic amenities like drinking water and electricity have been withdrawn. The ration system and hospital amenities have been withdrawn. Even then it is said (by authorities) that there are no hunger related deaths. As per government data, between 1 January 2006 and and 31 March 2007, the number of deaths in the North Bengal tea gardens is 571. Of these deaths, 402 are of those less than 60 years of age, 317 are male and 254 are female, 62 are children less than 10 years of age. Of the 571 deaths, 465 people died in their dilapidated homes, in other words no medical attention in hospitals were available in the case of 80% of the deaths. As per unofficial estimates, the total number of North Bengal tea garden deaths in the past 5 years is 2500.

As per recent NSS figures on underfed families in the the various states, there are 106 families per thousand (10.6%) in rural West Bengal (the worst figure) that are underfed for a ‘few’ months during the year. The comparable figure for Andhra Pradesh is 6/1000 (best figure) and 48/1000 (the state just above West Wengal as per this parameter). Further, there are 13 families per thousand that are underfed for the full year. This statistic is 0 for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. Orissa at 13/1000 is at par with West Bengal.

The existence of starvation in West Bengal after 30 years of left front government although the foodgrain availability per capita in the state is 0.2 tonnes per annum or 550 gms per head per day, raises uncomfortable questions about the distribution system and the purchasing capacity (or entitlement) of the rural population. This after claims of successful land reforms and land re-distribution through operation Barga.

The establishment left propaganda machinery has been geared up to obfuscate facts and divert criticism. Manik Sanyal, district secretary, CPIM, Jalpaiguri district, has published a pamphlet which states that ‘from a recent health department report we come to know that the rate of death in the closed tea gardens is in no way worse than that prevalent in adjoining rural areas or that in the operational tea gardens. yet, attention is being drawn to the death rate in the closed tea gardens by vested political interests’. This pamphlet was published in july 2007.

This can be counterposed with the fact that the governor, Gopal Gandhi, on his recent visit to Ramjhora Garden noted 36 deaths in the last 15 months.

However, in june 2007, Sabyasachi Sen, Trade and Industry Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal admitted that poverty is the cause for a high number of deaths in the tea gardens of West Bengal. According to Sen the highest number of deaths, 68, was reported from Kalchini Gardens.

This article originally appeared in the Dainik Statesman.


The Chemical Hub – what are the socio-economic costs and why should we bear them?

Translated by Kuver Sinha, Sanhati. This article is an excerpt from Chemical Hub – Ak Nihshobdo Ghatak, published by Platform

Chemical Pollutants and their Types.

The chemical industry and pollution have become almost synonymous these days. In the face of sustained environmental activism in developed countries, many governments have been forced to take steps on this issue. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention declared twelve specific chemical products to be the “dirty dozen”, in an effort to protect the planet. After that, a number of other chemicals have been added to the list – dioxins, furan, DDT, aldrin, dieldrine, certain insecticides containing chlorine, etc. These are called Persistent Organic Pollutant or POP compounds. In other words, not only are these harmful, they can remain intact in the environment, and may be bio-accumulative. It is thus possible for these products to enter into the food chain. For example DDT sprayed on grass may be consumed by livestock, enter the human body through milk products, and be passed on to progeny. This kind of chemical product is called PBT or Persistent Accumulative Toxic chemical. Another category of compounds is the “Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, and Toxic to Reproduction” compounds, or CMR compounds in short.

Petrochemical industries lead to both POP and CMR compounds. That is the reason Europe and the USA have stringent laws controlling the production of these chemicals. Developed countries have not only built up a system of controlling the production of POP, CMR, and PBT products, they also closely monitor the amounts of such materials in industrial waste.

It isn’t difficult to guess to what extent such control is possible in a country like India . Not to speak of extra workers’ protection, or control over the handling of dangerous chemicals, whose effects are demonstrably life-long.

Where do the Chemical Industries go?

Sustained research on the effects of pollutants created by chemical industries, and their effect on the environment has forced developed countries to think afresh. In Europe , after the REACH law was created, multinational chemical companies have started to move off . The new law entered into force on 1 June 2007. REACH stands for Registration Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. Compliance with this law calls for immense environmental responsibility – such responsibility cuts into profit – and companies move elsewhere, closing the logical cycle. The German company BASF has openly declared that this law isn’t realistic – it would lead to such towering production costs that people wouldn’t even use chemicals anymore. But Europe has not yielded an inch. The US has similarly remained steadfast in its compliance laws. But, of course, the first world cannot forgo the use of chemicals, which are often indispensable, for example, in medicine, in the fabric industry, in the manufacturing industries, etc. Thus, their societies need chemicals, and need them cheap and clean.

For that there is the Third World – us. Where there is no environmental responsibility, there isn’t workers’ protection or wages, where even the most basic safety measures are flouted so that costs can be cut (remember Bhopal ?). In this context, it is relevant to mention that although REACH bans the manufacture of many chemicals, it doesn’t ban the import of the finished product!

It is a lie to say that anybody is lending us a helping hand by investing. Investment is coming because of its own interests. And it is these investors who have been welcomed with red carpets by governments in the country, from the Central to the State, from Right to Left. For example the “Maharashtra Unnayon Parshad” – who said, in their April 1998 report “The Green Movement in the West has presented a golden opportunity for India to dominate world market in chemical products. Allied Corporation (now AlliedSignal), American Cynamide (now a part of American Home Product), Dupont, and many other companies have stopped manufacturing in the US . In the worldwide quest for cheap labor and loose environmental laws, India enjoys a special advantage…”

The various ruling political parties in India are fighting tooth and nail to curry favor with chemical companies, selling out the health of our people and our environment in the process. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has declared that he is not ready to lose this deal to Maharastra.

Is There Really a Plan of Development Here?

It is clear from this initiative that the government does not have a plan for development at all. We have not been informed which chemicals will be produced. Who are the investors? What is their policy and procedure of using chemicals? Is everything being left to the whims of the investors? Not only are they being given land on a platter, special economic zones (SEZs) are being created for them, and such regions are not subject to the rules of the Pollution Control Board. We are hearing that the labor laws of the country will not be applicable there either, in spite of the fact that it is precisely for this kind of industry that worker safety is most important. Workers should be given extra compensation in this hazardous industry, and since the health effects are often lifelong, the government should assume long-term responsibility.

Most importantly – who will be the consumers of the produced chemicals? If the target is the international market, it is difficult to justify why we should bear the social costs. Foreign companies come and go – that is the lesson that history teaches us. We have seen this in Argentina , Mexico , in South East Asia and elsewhere. It is worth noting that the government plans to develop the chemical hub in the pattern of Brazil – raw materials will come from outside, and be processed on our land and water, using our cheap labour. The produced material will again return abroad. Before we embark on this endeavour, efforts should be made to fix our national policy on chemical usage, and we should cautiously decide on the materials that we need ourselves.

Questions must be raised about the disposal of waste products. The first world has zero tolerance on this issue. We have not been told what our government’s policy will be in this regard.

An example will elucidate the magnitude of this issue. In the US , areas which accumulate dangerous levels of chemical waste are called Superfunds. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program is a federal program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Till January 2002, Dupont itself was responsible for 19 such areas, including a hazardous site in Newport Delaware , which threatens 10,000 people who live within a radius of one mile. Drinking wells placed within a 3-mile radius may cause organ damage, respiratory problems, or cancer. Groundwater in such areas has been banished, residents receive water from a Dupont constructed line. Dupont also had to remove 10,000 yards of wetland sediments – a $37 million investment just for that. The land is still, of course, off-limits for future development.

It is imperative that we think about the future of areas surrounding the proposed chemical hub. Bengal is one of the most densely populated areas of the world – orders of magnitude more so than Delaware , for example. Is there any policy of waste disposal?

Chemical Companies and Agriculture

It is important to evaluate the impending chemical venture in the light of the government’s recent foray into Genetically Modified crops, and the silent entry of Monsanto cotton in Bengal . On August 3,2007 , West Bengal Minister Agriculture Minister Naren Dey announced the beginning of BT Cotton field trails. When asked about BT Cotton cultivation in the state, Agriculture Secretary Atanu Purakayashta has said there is no bar on cotton cultivation.

Today, the main application of the chemical industry is in agriculture. From seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. to the way farming is done, crop diversity, and even peoples’ food habits are being changed by the chemical industry. What is available in the market and what is not, which crops are grown in which areas – everything is being decided by the interests of agricultural business.

Chemical companies are either buying off the seed companies one by one, or entering into pacts with them. For example Monsanto. They have bought out seed companies like Kargil and Dekalb, and established total control over the international seed business. Dow Chemicals and Monsanto have recently entered into a pact for allied business all over the world. Monsanto, Dow AgriBusiness, and other companies are now developing seeds in their labs, seeds such that only a particular chemical, only a particular pesticide and fertilizer are needed for it. A total package. A farmer is thus forced to use this complete package. In addition, the seeds are terminator seeds – if seeds are collected from the produce, that seed is essentially useless. The farmer is forced to buy seeds (and hence the package) next year, year after year.

It is clear that there is a nexus between the chemical industry and agribusiness. It is one thing if seeds and fertilizers remain under the control of farmers – it is quite another if such control is taken away by companies and agriculture is then declared to be unprofitable. The price of farming is increasing, farmers are not making profits from agriculture, and much of the profit is being sucked out by international chemical companies, and their satellite seed companies.


The government is basically giving land to whoever wants it, without a coherent plan for industrial development. There is no clear strategy of deciding which industries should be developed where, why exactly they are necessary, and how they fit into the overall scheme of development. Everything is being left to the investors.

When the whole world has set up stronger and stronger control over chemical industries due to the hazards involved, how well-advised is it to set such an industry up in a densely populated country like India , or a state with the huge population of West Bengal ? Where the government has no infrastructure for protecting public health, no machinery for controlling environmental pollution, what is the pressing reason to set up a hazardous chemical industry? Will we be the beneficiaries? What is the overall plan of industrial development? What products are being produced, and what are the laws of their use?

For more material on the Chemical Hub debate, please visit