Singur Diwas will be celebrated on 14 September.
Preparations are underway. National Highway 2 (NH2) on the busy Durgapur Expressway has been blocked one side and vehicles diverted to set up the 5,000 square feet stage for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who will lead the celebrations. It happens to be the same place where a decade ago Mamata had led the agitation paving a new way in the political bearing of the country.
Mamata is back at Singur again. She will celebrate with the “farmers” for the victory of the legal battle that had catapulted her to helm affairs in the state. People had already bestowed her moral victory by upstaging the then government for forcibly acquiring their farmland.
A decade has passed since then. The Supreme Court’s verdict two weeks back calling the land acquisition as “illegal” has paved way for the return of land to the farmers. Mamata is eager to keep her promise made to her foot soldiers in the battle for farmer’s land. But the task is huge and the deadline challenging over the next 10 weeks.
The Hooghly district administration is busy these days mapping the 1,000 acre land lying unattended now. “The acquisition was illegal then but the situation is confusing now. Everyone is concerned if they will get their due share. Or the return is just symbolic,” says Prosenjit Das, an “unwilling farmer” who had refused compensation and had fought for his land. He is actively participating in the planning of the grand ceremony scheduled on 14 September. “Initially, a few farmers will get back portions of their land from the chief minister on that day,” he adds.
Questioning the judgement, he asks, “But why should also those farmers, who had willingly given away their land for industry, get back the land?"
The unease is obvious and the divide deep. It is not just that the land is unusable in its present state and it will take not less than five more years to make it usable for farming again. The real issue is identifying the real owners and handing back their land. The lost years have made many claimants age and die. Priorities of the families have changed. Many have migrated and changed jobs. The agitators then who had added up to a number of around 10,000 farmers being affected were not just the ones who actually owned the land. Some were registered share-croppers (bargadaars), who had also received a share of the compensation package for giving up their claim on the land. But many were the daily wagers who worked as landless labourers in the farmland.
In the last decade, large scale migration took place and farmers turned to other jobs. Anima Das, the widow of Prasanta Das who had committed suicide by drinking pesticide in 2009 at the height of Singur land controversy, was never a beneficiary. They were unregistered share-croppers and had lost work and food after the land was taken over. Anima’s son is a school drop-out and daughter work in other people’s fields some 10 kilometres away. “Had there been a factory around maybe we could have got work here,” says her son Jayanta.
The last decade has witnessed massive migration of daily wagers and landless farmers from Singur. They were not compensated with work or skills then and do not find their space even now. Some changed jobs to learn new skills like that of carpentry and others found work in far off villages through the MNREGA scheme. The unease among the landless farmers is brewing with the announcements particularly at Singur’s main villages — Beraberi, Gopalnagar and Dobandi — that had witnessed the massive uprising. “Those who had been compensated will get back their land. They would lease out their land then and they would do so now if their land is returned. But where is the work for us?” asks Anima Das.
A few of the unwilling farmers selectively confess that those who took centrestage after the uprising have been receiving Rs 2,000 per month, per bigha of the unused land that was acquired from the state government. But the landless farmers who lost their jobs did not find ways to get compensated.
Rajiv Ghosh is a 30-year-old government auditor who had been trained by the Tatas in the ITI College at Howrah for handling electrical appliances after his family received compensation in exchange of the three bighas land in Singur. He says in the last 10 years he finished his education and once the land is returned, he would look for options to sell it off again. “In the last 10 years life has changed. We had given three bigha of our fertile land for industry, willingly and in the hope of work. The compensation money was divided among our family members. Now when the land is returned what use would it be for us? In the changed political scenario, we are an outcast in the village,” he adds.
Similarly, Abhijit Das had received training in Pune by the Tatas. He was 20 then and his father had taken the compensation for the future of his children. Now he does not want to farm like his father. He works in Kolkata and says, “If there was an option for a respectable job in Singur, I would have preferred to work there than toil in the fields.”
Fifty-two-year-old Bijan Das had stood with the farmers and 'Didi' then. He still considers this victory to be a trendsetter for farmers' rights in the country. Yet he says priorities have changed. His father, the owner of eight bighas of land, had refused compensation. “His land was very precious and wanted us to do farming. We had hired daily wagers to plough our land. Now my father is dead. The land has to be divided between four brothers and three sisters. Also, since the price of the land on the highway has gone up, no one wants to take the backyard and that brings in conflict at homes,” he adds.
Small holding for farming has always been an issue. The administration wants to hurry up identifying the land owners and appear to clean up the mess. But those who have hopes of getting back their land believe that the “land hawks” are waiting for a buy off yet again. As soon as the land is returned, farmers will be left with little options and will have to wait for years to make their land cultivable.
Tatas claim that their stake in the land still stands, since the court has declared only the acquisition by the state as “illegal”. And that acquisition happened prior to the land being leased out to Tatas. Their case against the Singur Land and Rehabilitation Bill passed by the West Bengal government in 2011 is still pending in the Supreme Court and that is adding to the confusion.
Meanwhile, the district administration is working overtime to clear the approachable area near the deserted factory land so that a few portions can be made available for the return. But many still prefer to stay away from the farmland concerned and suspicious.
Hopes are flying high yet again in West Bengal after the chief minister’s return from Germany after meeting investors. Some view that the Singur Diwas would be a day for surprise announcements in Singur. May be the welcome message of the chief minister have reached a few investors who would have plans for Singur yet again.