Singur, West Bengal: Hope springs eternal and rumours abound in this once-unknown corner of West Bengal that gained global fame (or notoriety) for serving as the setting for one of the most protracted (and politically orchestrated) protests against an industrial project.
Click here to view a slideshow of images from the abandoned Tata Nano factory in Singur and some of the farmers who have finally decided to give up their land.
Now, 22 months after Tata Motors Ltd packed up and left Singur, taking its small-car plant to the other corner of the country, Sanand in Gujarat, some people are still holding on to the hope that the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, which led the protest against Tata Motors, will come to power in state elections due in 2011, and sweeten the deal by offering them more money for their land.
And one rumour has it that the TMC could well change its stance on the plant after coming to power and invite the Tata group to return to Singur.
Irrespective of the hopes that will bear fruit and the rumours that could come true is one fact: some people who had for years refused to accept compensation from the state to protest the forcible acquisition of land from them have begun to cash out—with a little help from the TMC.
Long wait: Paritosh De and his wife Champa De at their residence at Purbapara Beraberi, Singur, in West Bengal. De says some people are only waiting for a hike in compensation for their land. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Around 80 families have transferred or mortgaged through “documented agreements” their “right to compensation” to the Krishi Jami o Jibika Raksha Committee (literally Committee for Protection of Farmland and Livelihood)—the apolitical platform set up by the TMC, interestingly enough, to protest the land acquisition—and have received from it at least half of the money the state owes them.
Krishi Jami o Jibika Raksha Committee was set up by TMC leader Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s main opposition leader and now Union rail minister. Most people in Singur now want to sell out, said a key person behind the forum. “There is no point in getting the land back because it is not cultivable anymore,” he added, asking not to be identified because of the controversial nature of the Singur issue.
The TMC’s Partha Chatterjee, leader of the opposition in the West Bengal assembly, confirmed that his party was offering “financial support” to distressed farmers, and that if voted to power (in 2011), it would stand by its commitment of returning 400 acres to the people of Singur, but “only if they wanted it”.
The forum is paying to each farmer cashing out at least half the amount due from the state government, according to the person behind it cited in the first instance. The balance is to be paid later. “In some cases, we have paid even 80%,” he added.
Rabindranath Bhattacharya, TMC legislator from Singur and one of the key leaders of the movement against the small-car project, said the forum was lending “financial support to people in distress”. “It is our policy to help those people who backed us during the movement,” he added.
Another person associated with the forum said the money loaned to farmers would be adjusted against the revised compensation that will be paid to them for their land, after TMC comes to power in the state.
Lawyer Debanjan Mandal, partner at law firm Fox and Mandal, said the nature of the deal between the farmers and the forum is unclear but added that “any right is transferable”.
“The state government may or may not recognize such transfer, but there wouldn’t be any dispute if the parties to such contract do not renege on commitments,” Mandal added.
It is not clear how the forum is raising money to pay its supporters, but some people here say the TMC is funding it. Chatterjee and Bhattacharya evaded questions on whether their party was funding the forum.
According to the state government, 2,516 people, who collectively owned 243.3 acres of the 997-acres plot acquired for Tata Motors and its component suppliers, have not yet claimed payment.
People who actually refused to collect cheques from the treasury as a mark of protest are fewer, according to West Bengal’s land and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah. Many of those who did not claim payment are those who did not have clear ownership of the land they tilled, he explained.
Banerjee had called for the return of at least 400 acres of the acquired plot.
The next step
Tata Motors and all its component suppliers, who were allotted land in the vendor park, have renewed their lease agreements with the West Bengal Industrial Development Corp. (WBIDC)—the facilitator for the project—by paying the annual lease rent, but it is too early to predict whether the project will be revived. WBIDC had leased out the land for 99 years.
A spokesperson for Tata Motors declined to comment.
An auto sector analyst with one of the so-called Big Four consulting firms said reviving the Singur plant would benefit Tata Motors in more ways than one.
On the one hand, it would reduce the distribution cost of the Nano car, which is soon going to face a lot of competition from other car manufacturers, in the eastern and the north-eastern parts of the country; and on the other, it would also reduce the cost of sourcing inputs, he explained, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On the ground in Singur, at least some of those still holding out are doing so in the hope that the TMC will come to power in the state in 2011, and pay more compensation to farmers whose land was acquired.
One such person, Paritosh De of Purbapara Beraberi village, who lost a little over an acre to the project, said, “Who is interested in the land now… We are only waiting for the compensation to be hiked.”
But not everyone has the financial wherewithal to wait any longer. Among those cashing out by transferring ownership to the forum are those who need money to treat illness or a wedding in the family.
At the peak of the agitation in Singur, Tata group chairman Ratan N. Tata had said that people with “vested interests” were backing the TMC. Banerjee herself was seen as a disruptive force that derailed one of the biggest projects ever to be attempted in the state. And it was a prestigious project for the revolutionary small car from the Tata stable. According to political analysts, for Banerjee, the political benefits of reviving the Singur project could be immense and far-reaching.
Aveek Datta in Mumbai contributed to this story.