By Nantoo Banerjee
Who is this Noam Chomsky? What is his nationality? Why is he trying to protect an extremely shabby existence of a few hundred squatters on a public property, stalling the development of the Kolkata metropolitan region, the country’s most neglected and infrastructurally-handicapped megacity? Did Chomsky ever visit or have even a remote idea of the location of the despicable Nonadanga shanties, erected overnight with bamboo mats and plastic sheets with the patronage of an ultra-left political group, before lending active support to the anti-eviction campaign and demanding the release of a so-called teacher-scientist arrested for inciting violent resistance to an act of demolition of the unauthorized dwellings by the police? An angry Chomsky had even shot off an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking his intervention. An unbelievable pressure is being brought to bear upon the suddenly dumb-found West Bengal government by a group of so-called ultra-left intellectuals to get the arrested biologist, Partha Sarathi Ray, released and allow the squatters resettle on the dirty wasteland devoid of any civic amenity.
The Chomsky-pressure, threatening to convert the Nonadanga anti-eviction campaign into a global issue if the US-educated biology teacher was forced to stay in jail custody, worked. Ray was promptly released on bail. The local police did not contest the bail plea for Ray by his lawyers after he spent 10 days in jail. There was, however, no bail for six of his comrades, who were arrested with him on similar charges of incitement. Though not many in India know much about Noam Comsky, a professor emeritus in the department of linguistics and philosophy at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Indian leftists, especially the ultras, adore him for his thoughts on anarchism, a pre-condition in the theory of the early 19th century German thinker, Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic materialism to usher in any radical social and political change. Under the erstwhile Marxist rule in West Bengal, the Calcutta University had conferred on the Jewish-American iconoclastic philosopher an honorary D. Litt. Since then, he has become the voice of the poor and socially oppressed in India. Chomsky is known for his frequent jibes against free-world democracy’s ‘capitalist media’ which earns him international publicity and fan following among leftist intellectuals across the world.
Did Chomsky care to know the background of those Nonadanda squatters? Where did they live before they suddenly migrated in small groups in the darkness of night to take over the unguarded wasteland belonging to the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). No one asks. No one asks how is the hardcore Kashmiri separatist leader and a strong fundamentalist, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, concerned about Nonadanga squatters. Maybe, Geelani, a political opportunist, just wanted to share a social platform with Chomsky after the latter drew a parallel between Osama bin Laden and George W Bush and asked how Americans would have reacted if the former US president, who he considered a state-empowered global terrorist, were killed in his residence by a group of foreign militia for the sake of world peace and dumped his body in the sea.
Ceaseless migration of people into West Bengal from adjoining states and across international borders over the years, occupying every inch of public land, including roads, canal embankments, footpaths, parks, play grounds, lakes and ponds, railway stations, bus stands and hospitals, have severely affected the operations of municipal bodies in the highly populous eastern state. Resettlement of squatters constantly poses a big challenge before the resource-starved state government. No sooner has one group of squatters been resettled, emerges another group almost from no-where to take possession of the laboriously vacated public property. As a battle strategy to win sympathy of the general public and to provide photo-op to the media, men folk among agitating squatters field their women and children in the front to fight the police and the municipal demolition squads while they remain in the rear armed with bricks and bombs. To reach those armed rear guards, the police are left with little choice but to arrest women and children to break the cordon.
Those who are in the know of things relating to resettlement politics in this part of the country would certainly recall how hundreds of hawkers having semi-permanent stalls on the footpaths of the road-intersections of South Kolkata’s busy shopping district of Gariahat were rehabilitated on a large vacant plot of land in a fast developing neighborhood while another group of squatters soon grabbed the Gariahat footpaths to sell their merchandise continuing to cause huge physical risk and discomfort of ordinary pedestrians forced to jay-walk through heavy automobile traffic. Meanwhile, the earlier resettled hawkers sold their large plot of land, given to them by the municipal corporation to erect a hawkers’ corner, gave the land to a rich developer to build a big multi-storey building and office-cum-commercial complex to make millions of rupees each out of the deal.
Squatters and shanties are not a problem of Kolkata alone. All metro-cities, mini-metros, large district towns and urban centres across the country are faced with these problems. Mumbai’s Dharavi once boasted to house Asia’s largest urban slum. But, those intelligent Dharavi slum-dwellers did not resist municipal bulldozers when they came to demolish parts of the unauthorized settlement to build Mumbai’s most modern financial hub. The affected hutment-owners were given a decent rehabilitation package. They moved to newly-erected condos or chawls with individual toilets and kitchen and made millions by selling or leasing them out later. Always in search of more money and better living, intelligent Mumbai squatters did not need the help ultra-leftists to hang on to their illegal possession and stall the development of the area into the country’s biggest integrated complex for financial service providers. Instead, they made the best of the rehabilitation package.
The Delhi administration has been the most ruthless in dealing with squatters and hutment-dwellers on public land. The last Commonwealth Games in Delhi had witnessed merciless eviction of tens of thousands of squatters settled on vacant wastelands, alongside large open sewage dispersal canals, by the Yamuna banks, etc., to make way for the city’s beautification and rapid transit systems. Few were compensated or rehabilitated. The Delhi games probably led to the biggest human displacement ever in independent India’s social history. Where were Ray and Chomsky, then? Lately, to save their vacant land from squatters and encroachers, the Indian Railways and the National Highway Authority of India have started nation-wide land demarcation exercise by erecting concrete boundary pillars at uniform gaps along the rail tracks or roads.
It would be unfortunate for the people of the country, if the development works – urban or rural – are allowed to be held hostage by small groups of squatters and encroachers under the patronage of some totally irrational political thinkers and anarchists appearing as champions of human rights of a few at the cost of the greater good of the society. This is not to downplay the need for resettlement of poor home-losers. Mumbai’s Dharavi has shown the way. Probably, a yet better solution to the problem would be to take steps to prevent indiscriminate migration of people from rural to urban areas. A vigilant police and municipal administration could work in tandem to prevent unauthorized land-grab of public properties, including roads and foot-paths. Squatters, backed by political activists, have taken the country to ransom frequently stalling infrastructure development projects and causing huge time and cost overruns. (IPA Service)