Singur: The world’s cheapest car may be coming to India soon, but at a price.
For years, Asha Patra and her husband tilled their land here for a meagre but stable living. Then the state government walled it off for a factory to make the world’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano.
Industrial divide: A labourer rests at the construction site of Tata Motors’ Singur factory.
With no land left, they switched to a tea shop, but their pots and cups were stolen three times. Unable to make ends meet, Patra sold her gold earrings, one of her few valuable family possessions, for Rs1,300. Her husband soon became silent, withdrawn and stopped eating. One day in December he went to a cow shed and hanged himself.
Patra, her expressionless face half-covered with a shawl, in her mud hut near the factory wall, says: “The factory was the problem. Otherwise we could earn a living.”
Tata Motors Ltd is preparing in October to start rolling out thousands of Nanos from its new state-of-the-art factory at a 1,000 acre complex in Singur, a cluster of villages an hour’s drive from Kolkata.
Eventually, some 250,000 cars a year will be produced in a project that has cost Tata about $375 million. Auto makers globally are wondering if the Nano, with its base model priced at Rs1 lakh, can successfully revolutionize cheap car design.
In India, it has become a nationalist symbol. One newspaper compared its unveiling in January to Man walking on the moon. But back on earth, many villagers such as Patra are ineligible or unwilling to accept compensation from the West Bengal government for the loss of land. They have protested for more than a year, and vow to overshadow the Nano’s so far good publicity.
But time is against the villagers. Their home grain supplies and savings are dwindling. Four farmers have committed suicide. Others survive on neighbours’ handouts.
“It’s a battle of nerves. They’re wondering how long we can face these hardships,” said Prosenjit Das, a protest leader. “But no factory with so many disputes and needing so many police can bring out its product.”
Villagers vow to be a headache for Tata Motors’ operations. They plan to appeal to the Supreme Court and blockade access roads.
The protests are a reminder of the obstacles India faces in industrializing and competing with the likes of China as villagers, two-thirds of a 1.1 billion population, demand to be heard. Other protests over industrial plans have hit India in the last year. West Bengal has already shelved plans for a chemical hub in Nandigram after dozens of villagers died in protests.
The problem is that land with good access and transport for industry is scarce.
Many villagers have accepted compensation packages in lieu of their land, the state government says. “A significant majority have accepted. Others have not. It’s their choice,” says West Bengal’s industries secretary Sabyasachi Sen.
Village leaders say owners of 337 acres, mainly poorer small holders, have rejected any compensation, and will fight. Even some wealthier farmers entitled to large amounts of cash are holding out.
The new Tata factory, with its stadium-like silhouette dominating the landscape, looks unstoppable. Dozens of trucks roll over dug-up land. Concrete springs up everywhere. It is easy to see why Singur was chosen. It lies close to a major highway, a railway and access to a port and is near a Tata steel factory in Jharkhand.
Tata says the project will create more than 10,000 jobs and points to a high court judgement in January that rejected petitions from villagers claiming the plant was illegal.
“Tata Motors is confident that the plant will become a catalyst for both greater well-being of Singur families and growth in the region,” Tata said in a statement.
That does not resonate among many villagers. Many sharecroppers—farmers who work land in return for a crop share—and landless labourers are not entitled to compensation. Some villagers who sold up have had second thoughts.
But this is one of the state’s showcase projects to persuade hi-tech global firms to set up shop here. “We want West Bengal to become a car-making hub,” Sen said.
Villagers face an uphill battle against India’s economic juggernaut. “There’s a depression at the moment, a lot of suffering,” said Anuradha Talwar, an agricultural leader who also advises the Supreme Court on issues of hunger in West Bengal. “But Nano will always be overshadowed by what’s happened in Singur. This protest will not be a lost cause.”
Tamajit Pain contributed to this story.