Land locked: Fighting a lose-lose battle in Singur
A cluster of villages in West Bengal was supposed to be the home of India’s miracle car, the Nano. Instead it sparked a debate that saw two Indias collide: The rural masses clinging to their land vs the aspirations of a superpower-in-the-making. In the end, the Nano rolled out — elsewhere. Soumya Bhattacharya reports.india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 21:18 IST
Alongside a cluster of empty blue-and-white buildings and deserted hovels, upturned cement mixers lie inside a sun-baked compound; a fetid pond stinks in front of a padlocked gate; above, the spring sky is an even blue, streaked with birds wheeling low.
This is the unlikely setting for the dramatic clash of cultures, economies, ethos and politics, which started in December 2006, and the ripples of which have been spreading across India — from Nandigram to Navi Mumbai.
Fifty kilometres west of Kolkata, off the silky National Highway 2 that leads to Delhi, Singur is from where the Nano was supposed to have rolled out.
Six months ago, a violent farmers’ revolt — backed by politicians cutting across party lines and led by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee — forced the Tatas to leave.
Today, Singur has come to epitomise many things: Political rivalry, land acquisition, the resettlement of farmers who were giving up their land and the trouble of industrialisation in Bengal.
But most of all, it symbolises what happens when the two kinds of India collide, when the largely agrarian, mostly poor, uneducated India comes into conflict with the India that aims to, through rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, sit at the high table of the world’s economic powerhouses.
“Our land was all we had. We’ve been tilling it for generations. And we were never asked if we wanted to give it up. We simply had to,” says Mahadeb Das (35), whose 3.5 acres of land was among the 997 acres acquired by the CPM-led Left Front government for the Tata project that was supposed to give Bengal an industrial facelift and serve as an attractive case study for future investments.
Some case study it has been.
Faced with protests from peasants — and an increasingly obdurate and fiery Mamata, to whom the Singur issue came as an opportunity to storm back into the political centrestage ahead of the elections — the government in September 2008 hiked by 50 per cent the compensation to dispossessed farmers who tilled this fertile belt of potato and paddy crops.
It didn’t work. “What will I do with my money,” asks Das, standing on the bank of a pond, in a lungi and polyester T-shirt. “We are equipped to do nothing else. The money will one day go away. Our land would not have.”
Like many of the 165 families in his village of Kasherbari, Das has not accepted the compensation cheque.
“I want my land back, not the money,” says Das, who has studied up to Class 6.
“Even with the hiked rate, the money would have been too little to be of use,” says Haradhan Mallik (33). “The land was fertile. It was security.”
So how do they get by? “My brother and I now work carting rubbish for landfills,” Das says. This is under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and it guarantees them Rs 81 per day for 100 days a year.
Not everybody was as reluctant to part with his land.
Dwariknath Ghosh (50) happily gave up his 2.5 acres. In return, apart from the money, he was to have supplied construction material to the Nano plant.
“My daughters would have found jobs in the plant,” he says. With the Tatas gone, that won’t happen.
Ghosh now runs — unsuccessfully — a fast food counter that operates out of a room with bare brick walls adorned by an old, torn calendar, wobbly chairs and a slab of concrete for a table on which bottles of vile-looking liquid (“Sauce,” he says) sit.
For Mihirkanto Ghosh (50), who owns a shop that sells readymade clothes, the Nano plant would have meant better roads in his village, more electricity and water.
“I had only a bit of land,” he says, “and it wasn’t particularly fertile. So the money — and all those things for the village — seemed alluring.” The allure has disappeared.
The CPM was routed in the recent gram panchayat elections, conducted at the height of the uprising, from here.
But with the plant gone, the future of their land uncertain, and their lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance, the chances of that being repeated in the Lok Sabha elections might not be a certainty.
What happens now?
Das, who is also an influential member of the Singur Krishi Jami Raksha Committee (Singur Farmers’ Land Protection Committee), sweeps his hand across in an arc, slicing the humid air.
Green scum floats on the pond in which children swim and women wash their utensils. He gives a wry smile. Then he shrugs.