Impasse at Singur

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Singur, West Bengal state was the scene of protests over the weekend by supporters of the Trinamool Congress.  Some 40,000 protesters formed a gauntlet leading up to the factory entrance of Tata Motors, a company which promises to make the world’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano, by October.  On August 24, Trinamool Congress personality and famed troublemaker Mamata Banerjee commenced the agitation with single-minded tenacity.  ‘We want the industry to come, but we don’t want farmers to be sacrificed.’  She is also scouring the activist field for recruits for this burgeoning Singur revolution, seeking the involvement of 15 to 16 political parties. 

Protests have inflicted a measure of chaos to the daily operations of the plant.  The Durgapur expressway has closed, and traffic re-directed through other channels.  The organizers claim to have kept violent protest at bay.  They promise to excommunicate any who violate that injunction.  ‘No agitation,’ argued Banerjee, ‘can be launched by demolishing walls.  If anybody try [sic] to demolish walls, we will not have anything to do with them.’ 

This, however, has not always been the case during this standoff.  Such protest movements are bound to get heated, and even uncontrollable.  Supporters of the Trinamool Congress-backed Krishi Jami Rakshya (protection of farmland) Committee landed several blows on a civil engineer working at the plant on 29 July, while threatening several workers there with an assortment of consequences if they did not leave Singur.  The engineer, Manish Khatua, apparently challenged the group’s efforts to make off with various iron rods from the plant.  A midnight attack on a lodge where workers were staying was also been instigated with the help of makeshift bombs.

The objective of this protest movement is simple: the return of 400 acres of land, which, in Banerjee’s words was ‘forcibly taken away from unwilling farmers.’  Compensation arrangements, when they have been asked for, have been miserably unsatisfactory.  The State government continues to obfuscate details about its arrangement with Tata Motors. Tata Motors pleads ignorance: the land was given to them by the state authority, and there is nothing more that need be said about it. 

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, West Bengal Chief Minister, has countered with his own package to settle the impasse.  Banerjee has proven utterly dismissive of such ‘old’ propositions, hoping, not merely for the return of the land in question, but a restriction of the Singur factory to 600 acres.  That figure was apparently arrived at by Tata Motors itself, a limit officials are showing reluctance to hold to.   

India’s cheapest car may well be revolutionary, but the murky politics of its creation have been more conventional.  Traditional, slipshod corporate arrangements between company and government have left farmers in the lurch.  Trouble has been brewing ever since May 2006, when the Singur development was announced at the Chief-Minister-Tata Joint Press Conference in Kolkata.  Protests soon commenced – some 1000 peasants turned up in force to protest to the Minister of Industry Nirupam Sen.

In October 2006, the crisis had deepened to such an extent that ex-Chief Justices of the Indian Supreme Court J.S. Verma and Rajendra Babu, and retired Judge M.N. Rao employed their pens, sending imploring letters to Ratan Tata to abandon the entire Singur project.  

The Tata company has recently been the target of much protest.  If it is isn’t the problems at Singur, then it’s the eco-damaging impacts of the proposed port at Dhamra in the deeply troubled state of Orissa.  Greenpeace activists there argue that Ratan Tata’s greed will be the turtle population’s doom. 

Costs of the Singur operation are mounting – something upwards of 2,000 police and security personnel have been employed in a protective operation that sees little chance of abating.  Contract workers have been staying away in droves.  As one Tata spokesman claimed, being quoted in the Hindu, ‘Attendance of the company officials was normal. But that of the contractual workers was less than normal.’   

The bills in producing the Tata Nano are mounting on a daily basis.  Ratan Tata’s response is predictably simple and commercial: continue protesting, and we will uproot operations.  Other state governments, eager to lure Tata Motors away from the troubled site, see a lucrative deal in the making.  But officials of the company are confident.  The first Tata Nano is still, in one official’s words, scheduled to roll out of the factory ‘between October and December this year.’ Corporate responsibility, in the meantime, can wait.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  He can be reached at bkampmark@gmail.com

 

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