02/08/2007, 00.00
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Bengal to uproot over 100,000 farmers to make way for industry

The Communist government of Kolkata wants to set up special economic zones with privileged conditions for foreign investors. But it decided to wipe out 38 villages without consulting the residents. This has led to an uprising and an attack on the local party office. Clashes on the streets left a policeman dead yesterday.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Street barricades have been set up and clashes between farmers and Communist Party officials have left six people dead and more than 50 wounded. The explosion of violent protest comes in response to a decision by the Communist government of West Bengal to uproot more than 100,000 farmers to make way for an industrial zone around 80km from Kolkata. Yesterday there were clashes with police: one police officer died and another three were wounded.

The government wants to create a Special Economic Zone with tax exemptions for foreign investors and a petrochemical plant on 19,000 acres of land in Nandigram. But 38 villages would need to be wiped out and more than 100,000 farmers shifted from the region between the Haldi and Hooghly rivers. The land there is fertile and has been cultivated for generations but the government launched the project without consulting the farmers, who responded with public rallies and blockades.

Most of them vote for the Communist Party that has been in power for 30 years. Shikh Hafrul Islam, a 28-year-old farmer, said: “They always told us 'we are for the farmer, we will protect your land', but now they are snatching our land and our food. But we won't let them do it." Roads have been barricaded with logs, rocks and bricks. The Party headquarters was attacked and destroyed. Police do not dare enter the area. But the government is not backing down.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, local prime minister and member of the Politburo of the Indian Communist Party, admits he took "a wrong step" by not consulting the farmers. But he seems to fear financiers’ negative judgment more than popular protest. Yesterday he said “all over the world investors are watching” and added that he had no intention of giving into violence. “We need to industrialize if we are to grow.”

But the farmers do not appear to be about to give in either.

The federal government is also planning to set up hundreds of tax-exempt economic zones to draw foreign investment and to bridge the gap with Chinese manufacturers. But the current protests have sparked a national debate about how sound it is to set up such zones on agricultural land in a country where two-thirds of the population are farmers. Ashis Chakrabarti, an expert in politics, said: “It was the left who always taught people to look at business with suspicion. Today they are victims of their own politics of the past."

In West Bengal, farmers have always formed the main electoral base of the Communist Party. Now the local government believes industrial development is “vital” but wants to take decisions in authority without even consulting landowners. Protests started when the government occupied 1000 acres of land just outside the capital Kolkata to build a Tata Motors car factory. Meanwhile, protest marches are drawing tens of thousands of people and are being followed across the nation.

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