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Singur: Many questions, many answers..

Forget the Tata nano project for a moment. Forget Mamata Banerjee in the forefront of yet another war against the West Bengal government. Amitava Sanyal travelled to Singur, slipping away from the political rallies and the agit-props and met the people of Singur.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2008 00:15 IST
Amitava Sanyal

It’s high noon. Two kids in school uniform enter Balaji Restaurant, the unofficial media centre at Singur, a kilometre away from the madding mikes on the highway. They head straight for the bar and ask matter-of-factly: “A beer, please.” To the stunned bartender, it’s a case of alarming insouciance. To the gathered press corps, it’s an amusing aside. Perhaps, it’s just a small measure of the growing aspirations of curious adolescents in a small highway village.

The adjacent village of Gopalnagar is the one that has ‘contributed’ the largest share of land among the seven simmering villages to the Tata Motors project. By some measures, as much as 40 per cent of the 1,000-odd acres fenced in by the project once belonged to the denizens of this village. Some say that some of it still belongs to them. The village has the largest number of graduates in the area and most of its children below 16 go to school.

But the children of Joymolla — another of the Simmering Seven, situated at the other corner of the project land — are not as fortunate. Alamin Mallick, one of the few to attend secondary school, has to be torn way from his game of marbles. “I’ve failed once, but want to go on studying. I want to stay here and do some business or job when I grow up,” says the 15-year-old with button-bright eyes.

But some adults of the Simmering Seven are more cynical. A dozen-odd middle-aged gents gathered at Ujjal Sangha, a ‘youth club’ in Bajemelia close to where Tapasi Mallick, later turned into a martyr by anti-land acquisition activists, was allegedly “burnt to death by Tata’s miscreants”, seethe with anger when they hear that some of their kids want to do something other than farming. “Will they feed themselves by suckling on their fathers’ teats?” asks someone, his eyes riveted on the day’s news wrap on television.

Seven villages, seven realities

Travelling through the seven villages, I find there are many shades of grey in the worldview of the people. It’s different from the black-and-white images projected from the 21 stages set up by political parties on the highway blockading the Tata plant. Many of the pukka houses constructed here have been built with money sent back by expatriate sons. In the poorer villages, hundreds have gone out to Punjab, Haryana and Delhi over the last decade, most of them to work as goldsmiths. Over the past year, dozens of them have come back in the hope of making a living off the Tata project.

Anarbanu Begum, 55, has seen this exodus and return from up close. She sold 7 bighas (3 bigha equals an acre) to Tata Motors, but hasn’t collected the cheque. “My sons advised me that what the rate offered is ridiculously low. Left to myself, I would have picked up the cheque. My husband and sons stay near Kolkata. I cannot keep coming back every season to get the rest of the land tilled. I would sell that too.”

In neighbouring Beraberi, there are 100-odd Scheduled Caste families in the Ruidas mohalla. They have little land and are happy with the Tata project. I catch half a dozen as they flock to the chaiwalla at the end of their shifts at the Tata plant, where they are mostly employed as cleaners. “Why are so many people saying there’s problem here?” asks Samar Ruidas. “You see any?”

The view from the very next mohalla in Beraberi is totally different. It’s a group of cattle owners, the old rich of this poor area. The lone CD-DVD lending library is doing brisk business. But standing close by, a furious Mrityunjay Ghosh, 39, says, “They fenced in 12 bighas — all of my land — when the CPM imposed a curfew here in late 2006... I have not signed on any paper. Unlike others of my clan, I know only farming. For how many years can I feed my family on the few lakhs they want to give us?”

The view from Gopalnagar, however, is cast in a different shade of grey. Many landowning young adults here have day jobs at foundries in Liluah or at private companies in Kolkata. Their land is tilled by sharecroppers who travel daily from villages 50-100 km away. Prasanta Shaw of the village, who got a driver’s job at the Tata plant in lieu of the land he sold them, says everyone here with small land holding have had to supplement their incomes since before the Tata factory.

Standing next to him, his distant cousin Lalmohan Shaw disagrees vehemently.

Our way or the highway

Lalmohan is another farmer whose land was fenced in “by force”. His friend, a trucker, muscles in through the crowd and shouts at me, “You a journalist? Run from here before I break your face.” Their biggest crib today is with the media.

The morning’s newspaper report has brought Lalmohan the sort of attention he can do without. He was called up on the main stage by Becharam Manna, the Trinamool Congress’s block leader, to explain his stance. It’s one of the many instances the mikes on the highway have been used to “correct misreportage by a misguided media”. And herein lies a remarkable flip in the political scenario of the state.

Even while passing on some numbers, a prominent local Trinamool leader requests: “Please don’t quote me on this. The culture of rightist parties is different, god knows whether I’ll get buggered.” For the moment, this leader, as indeed those of the 21 parties enforcing the blockade, are behind Mamata Banerjee, the lightning rod of all the electricity crackling in Singur’s air.

Same land, another factory

Right across the highway from where the Tata Motors boundary ends, the walls of the Himadri Chemicals and Industries factory begin. This, the latest, largest and most modern coal tar distillation plant of the company, is situated on land bought directly from farmers.

The plant, which came up three years ago (technically in Haripal block, not in Singur), is at the centre of an aggressive expansion project. Chief Executive Anurag Choudhary says the plan is to almost double the annual production by the end of March 2009. For this, the company that has received state incentives, has bought more land away from the highway not long ago. So far there has not been even a grumble against this plant, the only other industrial complex in the area. There isn’t even a formal workers’ union.

Just before he spoke to me, Manna was on stage, rallying newer constituents among the locals: “They want to build malls here. Their prices would be lower. Who would then come to your shops? Not just farmers — even local businesses are going to lose.” In front of the stage, it seems as if the jawlines are hardening. From drawing rooms and board rooms far away, it seems as if an unstoppable force is clashing with an immovable object.

With inputs from Snigdhendu Bhattacharya