Singur farmers, frustrated by lack of cultivable land and factory jobs, may punish Mamata Banerjee at polls

It is sowing season in Bengal when farms turn green with newborn shoots. But not in Singur

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Singur: Rice is being sown in one bigha of land in Singur for the first time in 13 years. The land belongs to Debprasad Das, who had brought in workers from nearby Srirampur in an attempt to farm the barren plot. “I do not know if the plants will bring rice or not as there has been no cultivation since 2006,” said Debprasad. “Before that, I sowed rice in this field for almost 13 years.”

It is sowing season in Bengal, when farms turn green with newborn shoots. But not in Singur, the chunk of farmland adjacent to the Durgapur Expressway connecting the area to the industrial belt of Shilpanchal. It was land bought by Tata Motors to set up a factory to make the Nano, its Rs 1 lakh car. It was the land that in 2011 enabled Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress to rout the Left Front which ruled the state for more than three decades and to retain power in 2016.

In 2006, the Left Front government under Budhhadeb Bhattacharya acquired 997 acres of land from 11,000 farmers of Gopalnagar, Beraberi, Khaserbheri, Bajemelia and Sahanapara for the Nano car factory and the Tatas started construction in 2008. Around 6,000 farmers willingly sold their land at Rs 14,000 per kottah, but many others refused, which led to the acquisition of their land.

Mamata, who'd just launched her party and was looking for an issue to galvanise party workers and voters, latched on to the protest. Mamata landed in Singur, vowed to return the land to the farmers if voted to power, and went on a fast unto death to press her demands, which forced the Tatas to move the Nano project to Gujarat (while  retaining ownership of the land).

Debprasad got 2 bigha land. He spent Rs 20,000 to make one bigha cultivable. Image courtesy: Umesh Kumar Ray

Debprasad Das got 2 bigha land. He spent Rs 20,000 to make one bigha cultivable. Umesh Kumar Ray

Mamata’s tactics won her a landslide victory in the 2011 Assembly elections. She passed the Land Rehabilitation and Development Act on 22 June, 2012, which empowered the state government to take possession of the 997 acres of land from the Tatas. The Supreme Court rejected the Tata appeal and ordered the land be returned to farmers within two weeks. Mamata termed the order "a victory" for farmers and started the process of land distribution.

For farmers whose lands had been acquired and who hadn’t received the compensation amount, the government is giving 16 kilograms of rice at Rs 2 per kilograms and Rs 2,000 per month. According to government officials, 4,000 families are getting foodgrain and cash under this scheme. Now, as voting day for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls nears, Singur’s farmers are being wooed once again. Singur falls under Hooghly Lok Sabha seat which Trinamool Congress MP Dr Ratna De has represented since 2009 and has got the party ticket again.

During the 2016 Assembly polls, Mamata reminded the farmers that she'd largely kept her promise to give Singur farmers back their land. At that time, sensing the unhappiness among Singur’s farmers, CPM state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said in a public meeting: “It is only we who can again set up industry at Singur.”

The dissatisfaction of Singur’s farmers with the Trinamool Congress is evident from the voting pattern in the last two Assembly elections. The dissatisfaction is largely because of the farmers’ inability to cultivate their fields. A sentiment that former actress and BJP candidate Locket Chatterjee, and CPM candidate Pradip Saha hope to exploit, both parties having increased their vote share in 2016 as compared to 2011.

Today, the barren land is strewn with chunks of concrete, stone and bricks, with concrete pillars sticking out of the surface. The farmers who sold their land, and those who had not and whose protests against the acquisition of their land turned into a pivotal movement in the state’s politics, have got much of their land back.

Many farmers say they are unable to cultivate land due to the leftover debris. Umesh Kumar Ray

Many farmers say they are unable to cultivate land due to the leftover debris. Umesh Kumar Ray

But not in a fully cultivable condition, as Mamata promised. Scientists at the Bidhan Chandra Roy Agricultural University opine that much of the land will not be cultivable as it is filled with cement and sand. In their view, more than seven inches of topsoil would have to be removed to make the land cultivable. But the farmers are in no position to bear that cost. Removing the concrete and other construction debris from their land would cost a few thousand rupees. So some of them earn a living by breaking up the concrete slabs to recover and sell the iron rods embedded in them.

About debris removal, government officials said a few hundred acres was cleared under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MNREGA). But chunks of concrete and stones are still strewn all around. “There were huge concrete structures, rods and other things,” said Debprasad, who gave 2.75 bigha land for the Nano project but got back only two bigha three years ago. “I had to spend Rs 20,000 to remove the concrete, but from only one bigha. Rest is lying barren. It is very difficult to run the family on agriculture. That is why I had given the land for the factory. If it had come up our children would get jobs.”

Debprasad Das is among the very few landowners who managed to remove the debris. Most have left the land barren. Like Bimal Maity, 65, of Gopalnagar gram panchayat. He got back his 22 kottah land, but is not cultivating it. “I participated in the movement against land acquisition,” said Maity. “But what have we got in return? The factory is gone and the land we got back is full of debris.” Maiti and other farmers like him have come full circle. “If the government starts an industry here, we will give our land,” said Maiti. The irony is not lost on them.

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When we arrived in Singur around 10 am, we saw only a few people out in the fields. All the farmers refused to give their names, though they echoed the sentiments of Debprasad and Maity that the factory would have been better as there is no profit in agriculture and employment opportunities are shrinking because old factories are closing down.

Mohsin, 48, a landless labourer is in a field. He is breaking concrete slabs with a hammer to get the iron rods. He cycles in daily at 7 am from Ratanpur around 10 kilometres away. “I work seven to eight hours and collect six to seven kilograms of iron rods,” said Mohsin. “This fetches Rs 200 to 250. Other days I collect plastic items from homes and sell them. It is difficult to run the family on a monthly income of Rs 5,000 to 6,000. If the factory had come up, we would have job opportunities.”

Hannan Molla, senior CPM leader and chief of the All India Kisan Sabha, recently led a farmers rally in Kolkata in which many cultivators from Singur participated. They came to press their demand that either government give them land in cultivable condition or establish a factory there. “In 2006-2007 farmers could not predict the consequences of their protest,” said Hannan. “We are now reaching out them to tell them that we were on the right track then.”

Locket is also using the same argument while campaigning in Singur. "TMC used farmers to come to power, but gave nothing to them,” she said. Her promise to the farmers: “I will raise farmers issue in Parliament and ensure a factory in Singur.” Calls to Becharam Manna, TMC MLA and a prominent face of the agrarian movement in Singur, and TMC MP from Hooghly Dr Ratna De went unanswered. But the Singur farmers’ reticence to answer whom they will vote for is probably not good news for the TMC.

The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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