Singur, West Bengal: Prashanto Mondal used to make as much as Rs800 a day ferrying workers the 4km from Singur’s railway station to Tata Motors Ltd’s factory site on the motorized rickshaw he fondly called Vano, to rhyme with Nano, the automobile maker’s much-hyped small car.
“I have never earned so much money in my life,” says Mondal, who invested in the rickshaw one-fifth of the Rs1 lakh he was paid by the West Bengal government for the 2 cottahs (about one-thirtieth of an acre) of farmland it forcibly acquired from him for the factory.
Tata Motors started constructing the factory in early 2007. Although Mondal thought the compensation wasn’t good enough, the farmer didn’t protest the land acquisition because he found a way of making good money, ferrying up to 10 people at a time.
Losing proposition: Prashanto Mondal’s farmland was forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors factory. He then bought a motorized rickshaw to ferry workers to the site, earning good money. But the dream run ended with the company deciding to shift the factory out of West Bengal. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
At least 100 marginal farmers and farm workers also started plying similar rickshaws and within months television sets started arriving in their homes as symbols of prosperity.
“For once, we weren’t struggling to make ends meet,” says Shyamal Das, who also plied a rickshaw fitted with a petrol engine for a living.
The good times were shortlived. Das was forced to sell his Vano to scrap dealers after Tata Motors announced in October last year its decision to shelve the small-car project in Singur because of protests by local farmers led by the Trinamool Congress, West Bengal’s main opposition party. Vanos have disappeared from Singur, and so has hope from the lives of some 250,000 people of this area.
A year after Tata Motors pulled out of Singur, the cost of the damage to the local economy is still being counted.
“The economy of Singur has been ruined by the withdrawal of Tata Motors’ small-car project,” says Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute. “The economy of Singur had definitely received a tremendous boost from the factory. But I think it’s impossible to repair the damage.”
Bharat Chandra Bera of Gopalnagar village fought against the state government when it acquired his small plot of land, paying Rs80,000. But when his son Shyam Sundar was selected for a three-month training course at Tata Motors’ factory in Pune, Bera gave up the fight.
Expecting the training to lead to a full-time job at the company’s factory in Singur, Shyam Sundar dropped out of school, but the dream of a permanent job with Tata Motors never materialized as the auto maker moved the project to Sanand in Gujarat.
“Shyam is now trying to go back to school, but he has lost two crucial years of his life chasing dreams,” says Bera.
Dibakar Das, a local leader of West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, says Singur lost the opportunity of a lifetime. “Starvation is now staring people in the face,” he says.
Even Das’s archrival Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, a Trinamool Congress legislator from Singur, who led the protests against the small-car factory, concedes that “some people got jobs, and were doing well while the factory was being constructed.”
But he quickly adds that the state government and the downturn in the economy are to blame for the current woes of the people of Singur.
Falling into decay: The remains of the shanties where construction workers used to live, with the deserted Tata Motors factory, where the Nano was to be manufactured, in the background in Singur. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
A number of banks such as Central Bank of India, Allahabad Bank and Hooghly District Central Cooperative Bank had opened branches in Singur, hoping to mop up large deposits as the state government paid close to Rs100 crore for acquiring land for the Tata Motors factory. Most of these banks are now ruing their decision to open branches in Singur.
“At least 79 accounts, which were opened with the money received for the land sale, have been closed,” says Gopal Porel, manager of Hooghly District Central Cooperative Bank’s Singur branch. “What is worse, some borrowers owe Rs30 lakh, and the bank might not be able to recover it.”
Most of these borrowers were erstwhile suppliers of construction material to the factory who suffered huge losses when Tata Motors pulled the plug on the project.
Allahabad Bank’s Singur branch manager Adwaita Biswas says at least 25 accounts, which until a year ago had balances of Rs15-20 lakh each, have become “inoperative” and if things don’t look up, the bank may close the branch.
Even sales of insurance policies had spurted, but since October last year a large number of policies have lapsed because people are unable to pay the premiums. “Earlier I could persuade people to pay as much as Rs1.5 lakh in annual premium,” says Tapan Acharya, an agent of Life Insurance Corp. of India Ltd, the country’s biggest insurer. “But now a lot of people are unable to renew their policies even if the premium is as little as Rs5,000 a year.”