Singur, West Bengal: Joymollah and Dobandhi villages lie just outside the boundary wall of Tata Motors Ltd’s Nano plant in Singur, 35km from Kolkata in the Hooghly district. Separated by a concrete bridge over the Julkia river, the two villages are a study in contrast.
“These two villages show the two different worlds that have sprung up because of the Tata plant,” says Meghnath Maitra, a resident of Dobandhi. “Earlier, I used to work everyday, but nowadays, with luck we manage to secure work for three to four days a week, and that too in faraway villages,” he adds.
Dobandhi is a village of farm labourers (bhagchashi in Bengali). None of the 90-odd families that lives in Dobandhi owns any land. “When the land we used to till was acquired, the company paid compensation to the landlords, not us,” says a young man at the Dobandhi Monoshamata Club, taking a break from the Hindi film he and his friends were watching on the club television set. “Overnight, the landlords became crorepatis (millionaires) while we have became paupers,” says another young man. None of the young men at the club was willing to reveal their names.
As if that were not bad enough, an association of villagers in Dobandhi with the Trinamool Congress-led Singur Krishi Jomi Raksha Committee has meant that they have not been offered the temporary jobs that came after the land acquisition. “Where are the jobs that were promised to us?” asks Maitra. The Trinamool Congress is a rival of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM in West Bengal. The block development officer of Singur, Prasenjit Chakraborty, insists that the able-bodied men of Dobandhi were offered work as labourers at the factory site, especially after an alleged starvation death there last year. “They said they wouldn’t be able to work as labourers,” he says.
However, Manik Malik, a Dobandhi villager who is one of the few CPM supporters from the village, says the reasons are political. “How could they (the villagers) queue up for jobs at the factory they opposed tooth and nail?”
Malik is one of 720 vigilantes protecting the boundary wall of the 997-acre factory site where Tata Motors will make the world’s cheapest passenger car. “Our job is to ensure that the Krishi Jomi Raksha Committee people don’t breach the wall and also to look after the generators and the light posts all around the wall,” he says. Most of his comrades are from the other village, Joymollah, dominated by the CPM.
“We’ve heard that Joymollah has got tubewells, toilets and their school has been done up, but look at the condition of our primary school,” says Kartick Bairagi, another out-of-work farm labourer at Dobandhi, referring to Tata Motors’ initiatives to improve social infrastructure in adjoining villages.
According to locals, Tata Motors has provided furniture, stationery and fans to Joymollah’s school. It has also laid tubewells and built toilets. With the panchayat polls starting from Sunday, an air of despondency lies over Dobandhi. “We have not benefited at all from the Tata plant,” says Bairagi. “No jobs, land gone, no benefits, nothing.”
However, despite the realization that they have ended up on the losing side, the people of Dobandhi are not switching allegiance to the CPM—not just yet. “We are sitting on one branch and if we try to swing to another, what is the guarantee that we won’t fall?” asks one of the men at the Dobandhi Monoshamata Club. “We will continue to fight,” he adds, but doesn’t sound convincing at all.
People of Joymollah, on the other hand, seem to have reaped the benefits of the Nano plant. Apart from Tata Motors’ initiatives to improve social infrastructure in the village and the jobs that went to them, they have also benefited from the rise in land prices here over the past two years.
“Those who own land next to the factory have seen the value increase six-seven times over the past two years,” says Sheikh Shamshul, who sold an 11-cottah (roughly one-sixth of an acre) plot for about Rs150,000. “This is all because of the Tatas,” says the former farmer who has put some of the money away in a bank and is now waiting for an interview call from Tata Motors.
Shamshul says things are peaceful in Singur again after protests, sometimes violent, that marked 2007. “Today, the opposition has realized its folly and more than 90% of the people are in favour of the plant,” says Shamshul. “Only the bhagchashis are complaining.”
Being on the right side of the government and supporting the plant has helped many of Joymollah’s inhabitants in other ways a well. “My nephew and I have been asked by one of the contractors to supply stone chips to the factory,” says Aloke Sadhukhan, who owns two trucks and is thinking of buying two more.
So, while the CPM’s support base in Joymollah swells with opportunities thrown up by the plant, the inhabitants of Dobandhi—which has a Trinamool Congress-controlled panchayat at present—continue to fight their battle despite a thinning support base. “Our numbers are dwindling but we’ll fight on,” says Bairagi.
Photograph by Indranil Bhoumik/ MINT