Singur issue: West Bengal farmers have clung to their land passionately, but to what end?

It was the day the Delhi Metro extended itself all the way to Noida. I happened to be in Delhi and decided to soak in the excitement firsthand. Getting on at Mayur Vihar Phase I, I found a place next to a wizened old man who said he was coming from Noida and this was the very first train ride of his life.

He came to Delhi often enough, by bus, by cycle, at times even by car when he managed to hitch a ride from someone, but he had never ever been on a train before. His excitement was palpable.

He had never needed to take the train. His whole world is still in the vicinity of where he was born: in a village in Noida. He started off working on his father’s land which, in time, he inherited. Then Noida began to be “developed”. Our man sold off his inheritance – happily.

It was end of 2009; Singur had been making headlines for almost three years by then. But it was news to the man from Noida. He was amazed to learn that farmers there were refusing to sell their land even though the government had hiked the price, after some “persuasion”, to five times the going market rate and there was the prospect of a factory coming up that could provide jobs for many.

He himself had no regrets about selling his land. He had been able to marry off his two daughters with the money, had set up a kirana store for one son while the youngest son had found a job nearby. The train ride was the cherry on the icing and not unconnected to his small act of self-interest: flogging his farmlands which turned into urban spaces bringing in their wake the need for fast-paced means of modern transportation.

Indian villagers walk past the unfinished Tata Motors plant at Singur. Getty Images

Indian villagers walk past the unfinished Tata Motors plant at Singur. Getty Images

When the grand handover takes place in Singur on Wednesday, when the jubilant chief minister, rather their adored Didi, distributes to both the ‘willing” and the “unwilling” farmers the deeds to their landholdings and the cheques for the court-ordered compensation for the land on which the Tatas failed to build a “people’s car”, will they be the winners and my Noida friend the loser?

According to Mamata Banerjee, “mati” (land) of her “ma-mati-manush” slogan has won, so “manush” have won too. That is what the celebration in Singur is all about. But have they really?

After ten long years of ceaseless strife, a decade of bare, subsistence living, struggling to make ends meet, swinging daily between hope and despair, staring bleakly at an uncertain future, what exactly can these tillers of the soil, “the backbone of the economy” look forward to?

With its small holdings, limited infrastructure such as cold storage units, lack of a streamlined food processing industry, agriculture has been a mug’s game in this state for quite some time. Hence the exodus of droves of men and women from the villages, young and old, to distant parts of the country as migrant labour and other lowly occupations.

Bengal’s farmers must be either very foolish or quite delusional to nevertheless cling to their land with such passion and determination, refusing to be lured away by promises of handsome returns. Even though things had started going south well before the Tatas came into the picture, with more and more members of their families forced to pick up skills and trades that have little to do with farming. They do not even have the horse sense that their brethren in Noida and elsewhere possess.

Evidently, their connect with their land hasn’t changed much from when Rabindranath Tagore wrote so movingly in his short story Dui Bigha Jami (Two measures of land) around a century ago:

“This land, so generously handed down to me through generations, is my mother Sir… Can I ever sell this…?”

Nor has their fate.

Already, the first flush of victory has begun to give way to pangs of anxiety among the victorious farmers in Singur: what will they do with their concrete mixed, fly ash enveloped, overgrown, snake infested land? After ten years of life on dole the older generation is practically retired while the younger lot has neither the expertise nor the inclination to labour so hard for such meagre returns.

Ironically, the consensus that has begun to emerge amongst Singur’s landholders who were ready to lay down their lives to prevent their land being taken away is: let there be industry. That is, sell off the land, start afresh. Something they could have done ten years ago but didn’t.

And now their very agitation has made the task of industrialisation that much tougher. More, the fallout of the Singur judgment is threatening to unsettle land acquired elsewhere in the state for this purpose. For example, Raghunathpur in Purulia district, where around 3,000 farmers have launched an agitation to get back 6,300 acres acquired from them for an industrial park that is yet to come up.

Praneswar Ganguly, the secretary of the “apolitical” Natundihi Anchal Krishi Committee that is leading this movement, has said, “We demand that our plots be returned, as the Supreme Court has ordered that the land acquired in Singur be handed back to its owners.”

Already, an agitation in Alisha in Burdwan district, closer to Singur, has led to Mamata Banerjee promptly announcing the relocation of a proposed sweetmeats hub.

Densely populated, mostly verdant and fertile, land is at a premium in the entire state of West Bengal. Add to this a faltering economy and the desperate dependence on land for even hand to mouth existence is understandable.

No wonder it became, so easily, a deadly political weapon in the hands of a master politician like Mamata Banerjee. The question is, it may not have been that difficult to climb on to the tiger and whipping it into a frenzy. But will she be able to get off it that easily?

Farmers are a fickle lot, as unreliable as the changeable weather that determines their fortune year after year. Bengal’s farmers more so. Just ask the CPM. These very same cultivators were once their support base, only to vanish into thin air the moment the land question was not to their liking.

Updated Date: Sep 14, 2016 08:52 AM

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