Singur site: Tatas’ Rs1 lakh car project now faces ‘water’ threat

Singur site: Tatas’ Rs1 lakh car project now faces ‘water’ threat

Kolkata: Plans of Tata Motors Ltd to roll out, by the end of 2008, the country’s cheapest car from a Rs1,000 crore manufacturing facility in Singur in West Bengal may be delayed.

That’s because the site of the plant, essentially paddy fields, is susceptible to flooding, said a person familiar with the situation at the irrigation department who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity surrounding the project.

The susceptibility turned into reality in late September when the Julkia canal that flows next to the site overflowed its banks.

Large swathes of the 997 acre site were flooded. On 29 October, workers at the plant-in-the-making were still battling waterlogging.

“The water reached till the cabin of my truck," said Ram Swarup Yadav, a dumper truck driver who spoke to Mint at the Singur site on 29 October.

“The engine has been severely damaged after being underwater for more than two weeks," he said, squatting next to his Tata dumper.

At another part of the site, a JCB excavator, its tracks stripped off, sat idle. At other places, damaged trucks, with telltale marks left behind by the muddy water, were waiting to be repaired.

The vehicles were among construction equipment which were submerged after the flooding.

“We were perched right on top of the embankment," said assistant sub-inspector A. Bhattacharjee of the West Bengal Police, manning a post on the far bank of the Julkia canal, who spoke to Mint last week.

According to him, the entire perimeter of the Tata Motors site is ringed by such posts, to foil attempts by militant groups of local villagers to breach the boundary wall. “Water reached till our post," he added, pointing at the rickety bamboo and tarpaulin structure.

“We had to regularly spray carbolic to keep snakes way," he said, over the crackle of the static on his walkie-talkie.

The flooding happened because the irrigation department released about 300,000 cusecs of water from the Durgapur barrage because excessive rain resulted in high water levels at the barrage. The Julkia canal is among a network of canals in southern Bengal which trace their roots back to the barrage.

That resulted in the canal overflowing its banks and flooding the site where the Tata Motors plant is being built.

Tata Motors’ high profile investment in Singur has been in the news after protests over forced acquisition of land from farmers swept through the state.

Nalini Kanta Haldar, an agricultural labourer, who has had little work after the farmer whose land he used to help till, lost it to the upcoming Tata factory, said last week that the company “put in huge machines (read excavators) on the canal bed before the monsoons to deepen it, but still the floods this year were very bad."

“Work has indeed slowed down almost to a standstill for almost two weeks now," said a foreman with Shapoorji Pallonji & Co. Ltd, the firm entrusted with the civil construction, who also spoke to Mint last week.

Asked to comment on the delay caused by the rains and the time that would be needed to bring construction activities back to normal, the engineer-in-charge, Ramesh Rao, refused to comment. He also declined to comment on whether the car would roll out as per schedule.

The official spokesperson for Tata Motors, Debasis Ray, insisted that all was well at the site. “The first Rs1 lakh car would hit the roads by the middle of the next fiscal," he said last week.

However, he declined to say how this would be possible given the slower pace and a three-four month delay in getting the civil construction started.

Still, the state government is aware of the problem and the irrigation department is drawing up plans to help reduce flooding in the area. This involves deepening the canal by dredging it, erecting sluice gates at certain strategic points to prevent water from surrounding areas with high elevation from draining into the site and installing a network of pumps within the site to pump out whatever water does come in. This would be preceded by a thorough survey of the site.

Once the plan is submitted, the government has to decide how to fund it. The cost could be borne solely by the government, the Tata group, or shared by both. The modifications could cost between Rs45 crore and Rs55 crore and would take one-two years to implement, the irrigation department official said.