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Ratan Tata: One of India's most powerful magnates on social responsibility

Published by MAC on 2007-03-14

Ratan Tata: One of India's most powerful magnates on social responsibility

Ratan Tata is one of India's most powerful magnates - with a dream to build cars for his country's poor. But as a farm girl is found butchered on his land, Peter Popham asks: is the price of his vision too high?

The Independent (UK) 14 March 2007

"I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody," Ratan Tata says. He repeated the sentiment twice in a recent interview with The Economist. The company he runs, Tata Group, India's oldest and biggest conglomerate, is one of the few Indian firms to have built a reputation for taking its social responsibilities seriously.

True, its 19th-century origins selling opium to the Chinese were not an auspicious beginning for a firm bent on doing good. But once it started smelting steel 100 years ago, the attention it paid to the living and working conditions of its workforce was far ahead of its time. It's the sort of firm that likes to talk about its dependants as family.

So, if Ratan Tata, the 70-year-old Parsi who chairs the Tata Group, is true to his word, the death of a teenage girl called Tapasi Malik must lie heavy with him. Malik was 16 when she died. Her half-burned body was found in a grave-like trench only yards from her home, but within the 997-acre area cordoned off by West Bengal's Communist government for a new Tata car factory where, within a year, Ratan Tata hopes to be producing the world's cheapest car.

Though still an adolescent, Malik had become closely involved in the struggle to stop Tata taking her family's land and that of the 22,000 other farmers who tilled the luxuriantly fertile fields of Singur, raising rice, potatoes and two more crops per year - taking the land and evicting them with a cash compensation payment equal to about half its market value. She had joined in a hunger strike against the mass eviction, and, according to friends in the village, the guards of the factory site and the Communist goons employed by the state government to terrorise the villagers were keeping her in their sights. Repeatedly, they had tried to grab her, but she had eluded them.

Before dawn on the morning of 18 December, she left the small hut where she lived in order to urinate in the fields. She was pounced on by several men and dragged across the fields on to the company's land - her ankles were found to be covered in cuts and bruises, and hanks of her hair lay scattered about. Then she was strangled and set on fire. Her charred remains were dumped in a trench within sight of the wooden posts that demarcate the factory.

Malik's friends in the village found her corpse still smoking. Police later claimed that the girl had committed suicide.

Tapasi Malik would have struggled to find the money for one of Ratan Tata's new cars. Mr Tata wants to help India's poor. That's why he dreamed up the idea of what in India they call "the one-lakh car", the car that costs only 100,000 rupees, less than £1,400. But there are the poor and the poor, especially in India. Tapasi's family are what they call bargadars, sharecroppers. Because they have no title to the land that keeps them alive, they had initially been left out of the deal presented by West Bengal's government to the landowners of Singur. As so often in India, the poorest of the poor were simply to be turfed out.

The absentee landlords who own 30 per cent of Singur were happy to take the government's money. But when most of those living on the land refused to make way graciously, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya agreed to pay off the bargadars, too. The sum was nine lakh (900,000 rupees) per acre, about £10,500.

Most of Singur's sharecroppers scrape a living from far less than an acre. The few thousand rupees they would collect from the government would have to suffice to set them up in a new life somewhere else. In reality, it would pay for a bus ride to the Calcutta slums, the corner of a squalid shanty there, some rice and potatoes to keep body and soul together, and perhaps some bottles of the filthy local whisky to blot out the humiliation for a while.

Tapasi Malik's death is only one hideous punctuation mark in a saga that has turned Indian politics upside down, and drawn harsh attention within India and beyond to the appalling consequences of its rush to riches.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), has ruled West Bengal since 1977. It came to power because the failure of earlier governments to improve the condition of the rural poor had prompted a Mao-inspired uprising in the village of Naxalbari, which spread rapidly to many other parts of the state. The uprising reflected widespread rural discontent, and once in power, the Communists did more than any other state government in India to break down feudalistic landholding systems, distributing thousands of acres to the poor peasants who worked them.

The Communists, who are a vital part of the United Progressive Alliance coalition government in Delhi, have remained, in theory at least, the peasants' friends since. They have stood shoulder to shoulder with poor farmers protesting the confiscation of their land for dam projects in the Narmada Valley, for example. And outside their home state they have taken a tough line on India's up-and-coming Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

India pioneered the idea of special economic zones in the 1960s, but they never worked properly. In 2005, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had another go. The idea was, as in China, to offer the manufacturing industry special areas where they would be exempt from taxation and customs charges, and where no environmental impact assessments would be required of new factories; places where both Indian firms and multinationals could capitalise on India's immense growth potential without hindrance. Sixty-seven such zones have now been approved, and hundreds more are in the queue.

Beyond West Bengal, the Communists have taken a tough line on the SEZs. "There is no justification in allotting huge tracts of agricultural land to the SEZs," the Communist leader Sitaram Yechuri said last year. "When we are importing wheat, such policies will have a serious impact on our agricultural production."

In Calcutta, however, struggling to reverse the state's long-term decline, they have been much more pragmatic. The day after his election victory, chief minister Bhattacharya announced that Tata, whose other vehicle factories are over on the other side of the country, in Pune, was bringing its People's Car to the People's Republic. The chosen site was Singur: only 40km north-west of Calcutta, just off a major motorway, close to an important rail junction - and home, as it happened, to thousands of people who failed to vote for Battacharya's party. More fool them!

Did Battacharya really not expect resistance from Singur's landowning farmers and bargadars? Did he imagine that no one would notice the Communist Party's amazing U-turn on the SEZs? The acquisition of Singur was sprung on its inhabitants without warning, without consultation, without plans for rehabilitation, with a non-negotiable offer of compensation. And slowly it became clear that the farmers were refusing to be treated that way. Through November and December of last year, resistance to the plans gathered force.

Beginning with simple farmers such as Tapasi Malik's family, as weeks went by and the clashes between police and CPM goons on the one hand and the farmers on the other grew more frequent and violent, the grotesque injustice of what was taking place - the boundary posts of the factory already banged into place, the deal a done thing - slowly became apparent to India at large.

India is blessed, or cursed, with a vigorous and pretty free media. We know, because we have been told, that tens of thousands of clashes have occurred in China between state authorities and poor farmers, as the state moved ruthlessly and efficiently to industrialise. We know that fully 40 million Chinese farmers have lost their land to industrial development. Because there is no media freedom, however, in the case of China those remain dead statistics. In the case of India, a similar process is under way, and even a ship as tight as that run by Calcutta's Communists cannot keep the cruelty of dispossession off the screen and out of the papers.

This, the brutal dispossession of the poor, is the flip side of "India Shining", and it's in the papers and on the news every day. Ratan Tata's cute line about never hurting anybody may conceivably have been true while India progressed at the stately "Hindu rate of growth", but now that Tata is fighting the likes of Lakshmi Mittal, the world's number-one steel producer, originally from Rajasthan, for the rights to India's iron ore, people are getting hurt all the time.

It was on 2 January last year that 13 peasants in a place called Kalinganagar, in the state of Orissa, were shot dead by police while peacefully protesting the arrival of a planned Tata steel plant, which would have swallowed their village whole. The massacre stopped Tata in its tracks here: protesters have blocked a main road through the region ever since. So now the company is looking elsewhere. In Bastar, a legendarily beautiful tribal belt in the state of Chhattisgarh, north-west of Orissa, more than 1,600 tribals are fighting in the courts Tata plans to impose iron-ore mines and a steel mill, and destroy their ancestral lands.

While the fight over Singur was still under way, a new front was opened up in West Bengal when thousands of farmers, in a place called Nandigram, took violent exception to state government plans to impose an enormous Indonesian chemical hub on their paddy fields and fisheries. This one was nothing to do with Tata, but at least five farmers have already died in clashes.

The only positive thing to be said about the spectacle of India tearing itself apart in the effort to grow rich is that lessons are learnt, slowly and painfully. Initially a peasants' revolt, the Singur fight steadily accumulated allies, including Romila Thapar and Sumit Sarkar, two of the nation's leading historians, the novelist Arundhati Roy, and Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada dam resistance. By the time trouble had erupted in Nandigram as well, a long-overdue debate was under way about the SEZs. Were they going to be the salvation of India? Or were many of them, as one commentator put it, "tax havens masquerading as manufacturing hubs", golden opportunities for property speculation, for seizing land cheaply under a British-era Land Acquisition law of 1894 on the pretext of "public interest" - then throwing up shopping malls and posh housing estates in which some of the dispossessed peasants might later hope to find work as domestics?

On 22 January, the Indian government announced that it was freezing the entire SEZ programme pending a rethink. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from Calcutta, said: "Is the huge increase in inequality in China connected with SEZs? ... And if it happened in China, can it be prevented in India? If it can't be prevented, then is it the right thing to do, despite the fact that it contributes to economic growth?"

That's India's problem, we may say: let them sort it out for themselves. But that's not true any more. Many of the overlords of the new India, people such as Lakshmi Mittal, the Hindujas, Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Resources, live in Britain, some donate millions to the Labour Party, and some have been honoured.

Britain's international development budget has enormous influence on where and how development occurs. Even more directly, a European firm, Fiat, became Tata's proud "strategic partner" in December, at the height of the Singur row.

Even if Indians were not our partners and neighbours, our destinies would still be entwined. The freedom that India gives itself to devastate its backyard - in SEZs where no environmental-impact assessments are required - is one of the things that makes the subcontinent such an attractive destination for your ISA or pension-fund manager; yet it is making an oversize contribution to the fact that, within the lifetime of our children, much of the earth may become uninhabitable because of global warming.

The World Bank says India's greenhouse-gas emissions rose by 57 per cent between 1992 and 2002, and India is now one of the Big Four carbon polluters, along with the US, China and Russia.

But because the global-warming crisis is "our", ie the West's fault, India doesn't want to be required to do anything about it. And your stockbroker, greedily eyeing that 9 per cent annual-growth figure, is right behind them.

It's not just Ratan Tata who needs to lie awake brooding about Tapasi Malik and what she died for. She should trouble the dreams of all of us.

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