It was supposed to be the best moment in Sanjay Koley’s life. For years, he had dreamt of a day when gigantic equipment would tear down an abandoned Tata Nano car plant in West Bengal’s Singur.
Over the past decade, the 58-year-old farmer protested outside the factory to pull down the plant’s boundary wall and reoccupy their land. Despite the loss of land and the prolonged court struggle wreaking havoc on his family’s finances, he refused compensation.
So, when in August the Supreme Court ordered that the land be returned to the farmers and compensation given, Koley and many of his fellow farmers were ecstatic. He soon received ownership papers for his 0.28-acre land and a compensation of Rs 2.28 lakh.
But when the bulldozers rolled into Singur on September 19 to demolish the plant, tears rolled down his cheeks, reflecting the pain of farmers for whom a dream of a better future and factory jobs turned into a nightmare. “We got a landmark victory but it is painful to see the plant pulled down and metal roads dug up,” said Koley. “It’s a waste of money, material and manpower.”
His neighbours, sitting underneath a tree, agree. They say they opposed their forcible eviction from their farmland by the then Left Front government but not industrialisation. Many say they don’t want to go back to agriculture.
“Wouldn’t it be wise to use the existing infrastructure for new projects?” 60-year-old Gopal Malik, asked.
Ten years ago, the land protests in Singur against a proposed factory to make Tata Nano — the world’s cheapest car — made headlines across the globe and catapulted then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee to limelight. By 2007, Singur — along with Nandigram — had become a symbol for popular mass protests against forcible land acquisition and paved the way for a farmer-friendly law in 2013.
The demonstrations carried Banerjee — who sat on a hunger strike against the Tata factory — to power in 2011, dislodging a 34-year-old Left Front government. She also vowed to give the land back to the farmers.
But back where it all began, Singur’s residents aren’t happy, despite having achieved what many are calling a historic victory against forcible eviction.
“We never opposed industrialisation. We protested against the government’s way of acquisition,” said Bidhan Chandra Bag, 65, of Khaser Bheri village. “They jailed my daughter-in-law for trying to protect the land. I swore to see an end to it.”
But this end is not what they wanted.
Prasenjit Das, 38, of Beraberi Purbapara, said, “Getting the land back was more a question of ethics and principles than of practicality.”
The likes of Koley, Malik and Bag have a solution: They say instead of tearing down the entire structure, land should be returned to only those who say they want to farm. “If Didi (chief minister Mamata Banerjee) holds talks, she will find more landowners than necessary to willingly part with land to let the structures remain,” they say.
This, however, is not possible. The Supreme Court clearly asked for entire 997 acres of land to be returned to their original owners — something that isn’t possible without removing the structures.
Sensing the mood, Manik Das, member of Hooghly district council, said, “We’ll inform senior leaders that the locals want the government to draw up a list of farmers willing to part with land and make that a part of the land bank to set up new industries.”
During her maiden visit to Singur after the verdict, Banerjee announced the government will not only return land in a cultivable state but also offer various incentives to resume farming.
In Singur, however, many unwilling land-losers seem more interested in the prospects of new industrial projects than in resuming cultivation.
Beraberi’s Uttam Das, 35, spent more than a month in jail in 2006 for participating in the movement and later took to carpentry to feed his family. The likes of him who switched to other professions such as plumbing, carpentry and construction work are now finding themselves settled in their new professions.
The past decade has also seen a new generation grow up without having any attachment to the land. The elders in their families who fought for land rights are now in their late fifties and sixties and have lost the physical ability required for the hard work.
But others — such as Khaser Bheri’s Srimanta Koley and Chandrajit Santra, Bajemelia’s Tapan Malik and Gopalnagar’s Ujjwal Manna — can’t wait to resume cultivation. “Farming will ensure we don’t need to buy rice, potato and vegetables. The extra income can be used for savings,” Koley said.
But there are not many of them.
Ranjit Manna of Khaser Bheri has been living on a monthly allowance of Rs 2,000 and 16 kg rice per shareholder per month provided by the Banerjee government since 2011. Having five shareholders at his home, the family earns Rs 10,000 a month, alongside 80 kg rice, without doing anything.
“Of course I’ll give farming a try. If my body does not fit the requirement, I’ll hand it over to sharecroppers,” he said.