Singur men happy to get back lands, uncertain about future

Singur (West Bengal), Sep 18 (IANS) After the initial euphoria over the Supreme Court judgment, Singur residents now seem uncertain about what the future holds for them after the land acquired earlier for Tata Motors’ Nano project is returned to them.

Dwellers of this rural hamlet in Hooghly district of West Bengal are experiencing both jubilation and despondency over the judicial verdict that struck down the acquisition of land effected by the erstwhile Left Front government for the project and ordered its return to the cultivators.

At the same time there is hectic activity centred on the return of land records to farmers.

A little over eight years back too, the area had seen hectic activities, but of a different kind.

Then, as the auto major geared up to roll out the world’s lowest priced car Nano from its blue-and-white factory shed here, the stretch buzzed with anticipation and bustled with enthusiasm.

Engineers were flown in from Pune to groom professionals at the plant, while the company also brought around four-five model cars for demonstration and training of local technicians.

The engine and paint shops, assembly unit and press shop were nearing completion, as the company eyed an October 2008 Nano rollout.

But ironically, the same month signalled the ‘death’ of the plant, as the then Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata announced shifting of the project out of Singur following an intense and often violent peasant movement led by the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee.

Months later, Nano got its home in Gujarat’s Sanand. But the factory here has since stood forlorn, enveloped in darkness, and the epicentre of political and legal battles over the years that changed the course of Bengal’s history.

On September 14, as Banerjee — now the state Chief Minister — presided over the ‘Singur Divas’ celebrations attended by over eight lakh people, the factory colours were surrounded by a long stretch of green paddy dotted with ‘kash’ flowers, a grass species that heralds the autumnal Durga Puja festival.

But the prim periphery of the plant, as seen in early 2008, has now given way to an unwieldy growth of shrubs, slush and filth, inhabited by venomous snakes. In fact, a snake catcher was kept at the site to tackle any exigency.

The mood, however, is sanguine in villages like Beraberi, Bajemelia, Khaserberi, Ghaserberi and Gopalnagar, from where the anti-land acquisition movement had started.

Durga Puja is set to return to Singur after 10 years, with some villagers having earlier declared they would take part in the festival only after getting back their land.

“It was a hard-fought victory and the judgment is a vindication. Now, we are gearing up for the pujas,” Mahadeb Das, a local Trinamool activist whose 1.3 acres were acquired despite his unwillingness, told IANS, proudly showing his land record and compensation cheque.

Interestingly, many of the songs sung at the programme were those which one would associate with the leftists.

A major gainer on the issue is Banerjee, her popularity now seemingly at an all-time high. She had staked her all during the Singur movement, spearheading the protests from 2006-08 as the main opposition leader in Bengal.

Banerjee had undertaken a 26-day hunger strike and a 16-day sit-in to demand return of 400 of the 997.11 acres acquired for the project.

Interestingly, the September 14 celebrations were held at the same spot on the Durgapur Expressway where she held the sit-in eight years ago.

The Chief Minister was, however, careful not to sound anti-industry in a state that is high on unemployment and short on investment.

Reiterating her government’s hands-off policy on land acquisition, Banerjee reached out to the Tatas and invited them to set up an auto hub in Goaltore in West Midnapore district on a 1,000 acre plot owned by the state.

In villages, there are still many of those who feel the Tatas’ exit has badly hit Singur.

Small businessmen are hoping against hope that industries in some form would eventually be set up here and, in turn, improve their fortunes.

“Cultivation will neither be profitable nor feasible. Had there been industries, people’s purchasing power would have increased. With the return of Singur land, we’ll have to cater to a market where these farmers will come with a paltry budget,” said jewellery shop owner Sukumar Bhar.

Grocery shop owner Tarapada Hazra — whose family had accepted compensation cheques earlier — echoed Bhar.

Tapan Das of Bajemelia village agreed. “Many youths who joined the training programme under the Tatas in 2006 have moved to nearby cities like Kolkata and Durgapur for jobs and some are working in showrooms and authorised car service centres.”

Similarly, many farmers are uncertain about the land yield, as agricultural scientists have voiced concerns over economic and ecological viability of restoring the Singur land, that Banerjee has promised.

“We are happy for getting back our land, but we do not know how much we can earn from small holdings even though the administration has promised to make the land cultivable,” farmer Dwijen Kharar of Gopalnagar area told IANS.

(Bappaditya Chatterjee can be contacted at bappaditya.c@ians.in)

–IANS

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