Complex Unwillingness in Singur

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, SUM, UiO This blog entry was originally written as a discussion piece for Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in response to an article they published in August this year. The article in question was authored by Buddhadeb Ghosh from the Institute of Social Sciences, Kolkata. It was titled “What Made the Unwilling Farmers Unwilling? A Note on Singur” (Ghosh 2012) and – as the title suggests – sought to provide some answers to the question of why a section of land owners in Singur in West Bengal refused to consent to the state government’s acquisition of their farmland. Since EPW turned it down I hope the readers of Fokus India will find something of interest in it instead. It may not appeal much to those with little or no interest in Singur, or in instances of resistance to land acquisitions in India. However, it does offer some more general reflections on the significance of methodological choices in studying motivations which may be of relevance to people beyond “the Singur circle”.


Buddhadeb Ghosh’s article on Singur’s unwilling farmers, published in EPW, August 11, raises some tough and uncomfortable questions about representativity and representation in social movements. Yet beneath these important questions runs a subtext that hints that the Singur movement was more or less a sham concocted by a few disgruntled farmers, with the strings being pulled by the TMC. In this regard one can read Ghosh’s commentary as the most recent in a very long series of attempts at discrediting the Singur movement.

From the very outset the Left Front’s “government-cum-party-cum-media propaganda machinery” (Samaddar 2009: 156) spearheaded this strategy, labelling the unwilling farmers irresponsible troublemakers out to ruin the industrial future of the state and being in cahoots with both reactionary rightist and ultra-leftist forces, as well as a “motley group” of NGOs, to paraphrase Ghosh. Industrialists and liberal economists have echoed this line of reasoning too, suggesting that there were “ulterior motives” at play in Singur. “Ulterior” presumably meaning irrational or – lo and behold – political. Ghosh’s choice of words is more restrained, but ultimately he too is out to question and critique “the character” (Ghosh 2012: 16) of the Singur movement.

Ghosh’s guiding question is: “what made Singur’s unwilling farmers unwilling”, presuming that a singular and straight-forward answer can be found to what is inherently a complex question that demands a complex answer. He looks for the answer in the most curious of places, namely the 275 page schedule of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011. But although he engages in what appears to be an impressive exercise in number crunching, he ultimately cannot find the answer he is looking for, only more questions.

Ghosh’s approach to the question of what motivates people to do this or that – in the case of the unwilling farmers of Singur, to join a protest movement – is unfortunately characteristic of much quantitative social science research that attempts to read interest from structure. In this case rural economic / agrarian structure. The idea seems to be that if we know what people have (or had) in material terms, we can deduce how they should (or would) rationally respond in a given situation. Hence if people have very little land – as did most of the unwilling farmers – then we can assume that it would not make economic sense to defend it through a prolonged struggle, as the supporters of the Singur movement have done for six long years. Ghosh’s conclusion is therefore that the unwilling farmers (or at least most of them) cannot have been solely motivated by economic interests. This is of course a truism, not least to an anthropologist like myself, who does not believe in the primacy of economic rationality as a driving force for social action, and who is reluctant to reduce people’s motivations to a question of economic cost-benefit calculation (or of cultural compulsions, for that matter). And it would not come as a very surprising finding to anybody with a more detailed ethnographic knowledge of Singur.

Ghosh’s methodology of looking for answers that are qualitative in nature by engaging in quantitative number crunching is puzzling in another sense too. Field-based research is eminently suited for learning more about what drives and motivates people, and since Ghosh is curious to know what made the unwilling farmers unwilling, he could have undertaken the 45 km journey to Singur, an area easily accessible by train, and have interviewed a handful or so of the unwilling farmers. They would have provided him with both complex and composite reasons for their “unwillingness”. Based on my experience they do not mind being interviewed, although they may by now have become a little weary of all the attention they have received from the media, the political class, and academics.

Let me pause for a moment to reconsider the merit of the “economic argument”. I lived in Singur in a neighbourhood that had a clear majority of unwilling farmers for some eight months between 2007 and 2009. I conducted a small survey in situ myself. It covered just over 140 households, and it revealed that Ghosh’s estimate that most farmers lost only smallish plots of land to the Tata factory is correct. The problem is, they did not have very much land to start with either. So to gauge whether Ghosh is right in claiming that it would not make economic sense to fight to retain even a minuscule plot of land, one would need to know not just what people had lost, but what they were left with afterwards. Marc Edelman has argued that for most of the world’s poor, the:

Diversification of individual and family strategies has contributed to the expansion of a semi- and unskilled rural workforce that often maintains some land base … and that depends fundamentally on a complicated mix of wage labour, self-employment and involvement in “micro-enterprises”, small-scale agriculture, artisanal or industrial production, and other activities (Edelman 2008: 77).

This description captures the situation for a good number of families I interviewed during my stay in Singur. Like elsewere in rural India, many households were pluri-active and straddled the agricultural and non-agricultural sector (Lindberg 2012). But if one removes parts or all of “the land base”, no matter how small, from this complex livelihoods equation, the economic impact on already marginal and vulnerable households can be significant. In other words, for some of the unwilling farmers, the loss of even very small plots of land did make an economic difference. This finding is supported by the results of a recent survey done by Ghatak et al. (2012) which covered 534 carefully sampled households in Singur. The authors find “considerable evidence of the role of financial considerations” among the unwilling farmers, and carefully document how the acquisition of agricultural land has in fact “significantly reduced incomes of owner cultivator and tenant households”.

But of course there is much more to the Singur movement than simple economic rationality. Ghosh cites an article by Dayabati Roy (2007) (and another authored by myself (Nielsen 2010)) to argue that the economic / livelihoods argument occupied pride of place in public debates over Singur. But most of us who followed the Singur controversy know that there was much more at stake, even among the unwilling farmers. Many of them, incidentally, belonged to the mahishya caste of cultivators, for whom – at least among the older generation – the ownership and cultivation of land is an important marker of identity and status. One should, I believe, be able to point this out without being accused of engaging in a rural nostalgia or of arguing along romantic or “emotional” lines. Other unwilling farmers saw their movement as part of a larger struggle for social justice; as a critique of draconian uses of eminent domain; as an opportunity to damage the Left Front; and even as a critique of the current neoliberal development model. These motivations combined and reinforced each other in complex ways to motivate many unwilling farmers to become precisely that: unwilling to comply with a policy decision that to them seemed deeply unjust. All these motivations may of course be labelled “political”. But so what? To me, that makes them no less legitimate as a foundation for social protest than, say, a myopic, self-interested and individualised economic rationality.


Edelman, Marc (2008): “Transnational Organizing in Agrarian Central America: Histories, Challenges, Prospects” in Saturino M. Borras Jr, Marc Edelman and Cristóbal Kay (ed.), Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalization (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell).

Ghatak, Maitreesh, Sandip Mitra, Dilip Mukherjee and Anusha Nath (2012): Land Acquisition and Compensation in Singur: What Really Happened? Working paper. Boston: Institute for Economic Development, Boston University.

Ghosh, Buddhadeb (2012): “What Made the ‘Unwilling Farmers’ Unwilling? A Note on Singur”, Economic and Political Weekly, 11 August, 13-16.

Lindberg, Staffan (2012): “Rural India 1970-2005: An Arduous Transition to What?”, The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 55 (1): 61-75.

Nielsen, Kenneth Bo (2010): “Contesting India’s Development? Industrialisation, Land Acquisition and Protest in West Bengal”, Forum for Development Studies, 37 (2): 154-70.

Roy, Dayabati (2007): “Politics at the Margin: A Tale of Two Villages”, Economic and Political Weekly, 11 August, 3323-29.

Samaddar, Ranabir (2009): “Prescribed, Tolerated and Forbidden Forms of Claim Making” in Pradip Kumar Bose and Samir Kumar Das (ed.), Social Justice and Enlightenment: West Bengal (New Delhi: Sage).

Kenneth Bo Nielsen ( ) is at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway.

2 Comments on Complex Unwillingness in Singur

  1. What happened to tapasi malik case? Regarding Tapasi Malik case, we have reason to doubt that what really happened and whether lies are practiced or not? Her parent’s role is suspected. They are hiding some facts. CBI once released sketches of the four prime accused in the case related to Tapasi Malik in Singur. Releasing the sketches, CBI Superintendent of Police A K Sahai had said, «The sketches have been drawn on the basis of the interrogation of people and they will be distributed all over the country.» Though the CBI declined to disclose details about the accused, it announced a cash reward of Rs one lakh for anybody who could provide information about them. Where these sketches had gone? Tapasi’s father and brother might have had something to do with her murder. Tapasi’s unnatural death was cloudy and complicated. The CBI has become suspicious of the statements made by Tapasi’s father Monoranjan and brother Surajit. They did not own any plot of land at all. Nor they did till any land anywhere. Monoranjan was a member of the rural poor of the Singur village of Bajeymelia who eked out a living through selling fishes from a pavement stall and he had indeed lined up before the block level offices of the state government requesting for a job. But, Monoranjan and Tapasi were dubbed by commercial media as leading activists of the save agricultural land committee. Both Tapasi’s father and brother have something to hide with her murder.

  2. asit guin // 29. mars 2014 at 23:12 // Svar

    Please collect the data regarding number of farmers in Bengal and area of cultivable land available. Per capita land for the farmers is clear proof that Bengal can no longer support this many farmers by this much land. So, half of the farmers have to change profession and one percent of the farming land has to sacrifice for industries. Left front’s action in detail may need revision, but their overall policy is mathematically correct. There was no farmer suicide in Bengal in last 34 years. Who will explain it? The 34 years is the story of Bengal success in agriculture. When govt initiated the process of industrialization based on agri-success, enemies of Bengal spoiled it.

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