Singur (West Bengal): Malati Das, now in her 60s, was forced to give up farming 10 years ago when the West Bengal government seized her family’s land in Singur to build a small car factory.
Angered by the land grab, she joined the agitation led by Mamata Banerjee, then opposition leader, spurning the meagre compensation offered by the state government.
Ten years on, her struggle has paid off as she prepares to resume farming, but nightmares from the past still haunt her. “We will be able to put the trauma behind only after we reap a few harvests from our land,” she said, watching workers clearing the debris from the 997-acre plot that was to be the manufacturing hub for Tata Motors Ltd’s Nano car.
The wheel will turn full circle on Thursday when West Bengal chief minister Banerjee arrives to kick off farming yet again: 10 years ago, the state government had waited for farmers to harvest the standing crop before cordoning off the acquired plot.
The administration will start handing possession of the plot to its original owners from Thursday, and the state’s agriculture department has decided that the first crops to be sown in Singur are mustard and pulses.
The seeds will be distributed by the state government, and if all goes well, Das might be able to reap her first harvest in January. With Rs3.5 lakh in her bank account—the compensation which she had previously refused to take from the state treasury now drawn with honour as a prize—Das is now looking to turn the clock back. “I am still strong enough to plough my land,” she said.
Almost the entire plot will be cultivable immediately, according to state government officials. There is, though, some uncertainty over a portion of the plot where Tata Motors had built its factory, raising the plinth with landfill.
The state government has said that it will restore the top soil to make it cultivable, but Bapi Manna, a local farmer, said it might take up to four years to revive its fertility. He, too, is waiting to get possession of his land on Thursday, but he isn’t as enthusiastic as others.
Manna represents the section of Singur’s farmers, who have over time realised that agriculture alone didn’t hold much promise for the future. People opposed the project because of the forcible land acquisition, according to Manna.
Had Tata Motors agreed to start its factory with 600 acres, it wouldn’t have been difficult for the carmaker to expand it later, he said, adding that people would have voluntarily sold land once they started realizing the benefits of industrialization.
Because land holdings are small, Singur’s farmers need to augment their income from farming and are encouraging their children to take up other jobs, according to Rabindranath Bhattacharya, Trinamool Congress leader and the local legislator.
Still, the project didn’t materialize because of poor execution, said Bhattacharya. At one point, the local people wanted the plot previously given to Tata Motors to be put to industrial use, but that option was no longer available after the Supreme Court ordered the state government to return the land to its owners, restoring its original character, according to Bhattacharya.
The fiasco has pushed Singur back by “a century”, laments Baburam Das, a NREGA worker. While manning traffic, Das said he had to settle for “menial jobs” for want of better alternatives.
“I don’t know if the factory was the solution, but what happened isn’t any good for my generation,” he added.