Singur (West Bengal), April 28 (IANS) Seven-and-a-half-years after Tata Motors relocated its Nano small car factory out of this rural belt, the abandoned plant, with its corroded metal gate and deserted sheds, stands like a haunted house besides National Highway 2.
And the aborted project is again the ‘key factor’ in West Bengal’s Singur assembly constituency that goes to the hustings two days from now.
Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) candidate Rabin Deb kickstarted his campaign riding a Nano, in an obvious bid to keep the issue alive in this Hooghly district area.
On the day IANS interviewed him, he was campaigning in another vehicle made by the automobile giant.
Asked whether the brand is being consciously used, the CPI-M state secretariat member said: “It is accidental. But people are asking – can we bring the Tatas back here? We are committed to complete our unfinished work and will bring back the car makers if we form the government.”
Singur was on the boil between 2006 and 2008 after the then Left Front government acquired 997.11 acres of land for setting up the small car factory.
Demanding return of 400 acres to “unwilling farmers” (from whom land was allegedly taken against their will), the then opposition Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee spearheaded a violent and sustained peasants movement that ultimately forced the automobile giants to shift its plant to Sanand in Gujarat.
The movement raised Trinamool’s popularity graph, and it went from strength to strength to oust the 34-year-old Left Front government in the 2011 assembly polls. However, the opposition branded Banerjee anti-industry.
Soon after coming to power five years ago, the Banerjee government promulgated the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act and acquired the land to keep its promise of returning 400 acres to the “unwilling farmers”.
However, the Tatas took the legal route and the matter is now pending before the Supreme Court.
The farmers’ long wait, which is being encashed upon by the Left, is an embarrassment for Trinamool candidate and sitting MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya, who was elected from the constituency in 2011 with a 34,000-plus margin.
“Banerjee has failed to return land to the farmers. She instead is using the legal battle as a shield against her inability to return land,” Deb said, promising an out-of-court settlement with the company and other stakeholders involved in the project if the LF-Congress alliance was voted to power.
But Bhattacharya, a retired teacher, said the Trinamool was firm in its commitment to return the land, though the court case was a hindrance.
He exuded confidence of doing a repeat of 2011 in the constituency, which has over 230,000 electors, including a large Muslim population.
But Bhattacharya agreed there was discontent and anger among the “unwilling farmers” over the delay.
“However, they have shunned the CPI-M politically since the day during the LF regime when they were beaten up and hounded by police to force them to give land for the project,” Bhattacharya told IANS after completing a round of campaigning in Anandanagar area.
But there are indications that Singur may turn ‘hostile’ again if the delay in returning land gets stretched.
“How long do we wait? Those who had received cheques as compensation at least got something. But we neither took the cheque nor got back the land,” a farmer who had lost his land residing in Khaserberi village told IANS on condition of anonymity.
Bhattacharya is banking on the support of over 3500 families of farmers, tenants and labourers who are getting cash assistance of Rs.2,000 per month and 16 kg rice at Rs.2 a kg.
Mahadeb Das, an unwilling land-loser and local Trinamool activist who lost 1.3 acres, said: “Farmers are at least happy at the dole that Mamata Banerjee is giving.”
The Left government slapped 128 cases against farmers. Most of them have been resolved during the Trinamool rule, he said.
At present, there are 2,400 unwilling farmers with 340 acres of land, down from the much-publicised 400 acres. Some farmers had given land and received the cheque later due to circumstantial pressure, Das said.
While the CPI-M’s campaign is built around “what Singur missed” with Nano’s exit, Singur Shilpa Bachao Committee convener Udayan Das – whose family and relatives had given 20 acres of land – demanded the company be brought back to provide employment opportunities to the youth.
He, however, claimed the price set per acre of land by the LF regime was lower than the market price prevailing then.
In the 2014 Lok Sabh poll, the Trinamool had led by over 30,000 votes from the assembly segment. But the BJP got a surprising 24,000-plus votes and the Congress a mere 3,681. The extent to which the BJP manages to hold on to its vote bank, and whether some of it gets transferred to the Left-Congress or the Trinamool, may become a crucial factor in determining the final outcome this time.
(Bappaditya Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)