West Bengal: The Tata Small Car project again runs into trouble as the Trinamool Congress-backed KJRC resorts to violence.
TROUBLE has resurfaced at the Tata Small Car Project site in Singur in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Supporters of the Trinamool Congress-backed Krishi Jami Rakshya (protection of farmland) Committee (KJRC) beat up a civil engineer working at the site and threatened the workers there with dire consequences if they did not quit their jobs and leave Singur.
Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee stoked the fire, emboldened by the success of her party in Singur in the recent panchayat elections. She announced an indefinite gherao of the plant site from August 24 until 400 acres (160 hectares) of the 997.11 acres (399 ha) acquired for the project were returned to the reluctant landlosers.
That was enough cause for concern for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, which sees the project as one that involves the most important investment in the manufacturing sector in recent times. And Tata Motors managing director Ravi Kant’s recent statement only added to its anxiety. Asked about the problems faced by the company in Singur, Kant said, “We are continuing as long as our patience lasts” – a statement with obvious ominous connotations.
Right from the beginning of this project in 2006, the Trinamool Congress, along with the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), has been attempting to put a spanner in the works, be it over the acquisition of land or over compensation for the landlosers. In the most recent incident, on July 29, Manish Khatua, an engineer in the employ of Shapoorji Pallonji & Co. Ltd, entrusted with the civil construction of the small car plant, was beaten with iron rods by a group of villagers, allegedly KJRC members.
According to reports, the incident took place when Khatua tried to prevent the group from stealing iron rods from the plant site. The incident occurred less than 48 hours after the KJRC threatened employees at the plant site. It even launched a midnight attack with handmade bombs on a nearby lodge where some of the workers were staying.
Volatile as the situation has been at the troubled plant site for the past two years, the latest incidents left workers shaken. According to sources, a sizeable section of workers was too scared to report for work for a few days even though police protection and the number of Tatas’ own security guards were increased around the plant site.
“With almost 80 per cent of the construction work over, at present on any given day, there are between 2,500 to 3,000 people working at the site, and there has been an exodus of quite a few because of the KJRC’s intimidation tactics,” a source close to Tata Motors told Frontline. This has to some extent affected the progress of the work, but the company’s top brass are apparently confident that Nano, the Rs.1 lakh car, will roll out of the factory “between October and December this year”.
At present there are around 600 policemen deployed in Singur along with 500 private security personnel employed by Tata Motors. In fact, State Home Secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty himself went to Singur to take stock of the situation and even held a meeting at the factory site on August 5 to discuss the law-and-order situation.
Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has stuck to her guns, refusing repeated invitations from the State government to sit for talks on the issue. She has ruled out any possibility of talks unless the 400 acres acquired without the consent of farmers are returned.
Out of around 12,000 landowners who were affected, 1,500 refused to accept compensation, demanding the return of their land. “Nowhere else in this country has any opposition party of a State hindered the development and growth of the State for a short-term political gain; in all other States, the opposition has the greater interest of the State in mind,” a government source told Frontline.
Mamata Banerjee’s stand on Singur has not found the kind of support she may have been hoping for. Perhaps realising this, she adopted a more conciliatory tone at a press conference on August 5, where she said, “I am not opposed to industrialisation and I do not want the Tatas to leave Singur, but I want the 400 acres forcibly acquired from unwilling farmers to be returned to them.”
She has apparently already identified land opposite the plant site where, according to her, ancillary units could be accommodated. This was done without consulting either the State government or Tata Motors.
The government, however, has ruled out the possibility of any part of the land being returned. West Bengal Commerce and Industries Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Nirupam Sen said the 400 acres in question were scattered over the project site: “How can the government return this land without jeopardising the whole project?”
Moreover, a Supreme Court ruling also states that land acquired for a public purpose cannot be resold to the erstwhile owners but can either be used for another public purpose or, failing that, be put to public auction and the sale proceeds used for a public purpose (State of Kerala vs. N. Bhaskaran Pillai, 1997 vide SCC, 432).
On January 18, the Calcutta High Court upheld, while disposing of a number of public interest litigation cases, the State government’s land acquisition proceeding in Singur, making it clear in a 217-page judgment that land acquisition in the region was “made for the public purpose of employment generation and socio-economic development of the region” and ruled out any mala fide intention of the State government in acquiring land in Singur.
The Tata project is of singular importance to West Bengal. The Rs.1,000-crore project involves one of the biggest investments in the manufacturing industry in the State and is expected to kick-start its reindustrialisation process. Once it is operational, the project is expected to employ 2,000 people directly and 10,000 indirectly. Besides, it is expected to generate spin-offs in different manufacturing spheres and also attract other kinds of industrial investments.
In the Left government’s perception, the industrial future of West Bengal hinges on this prestigious project – a future that envisions industrial growth and employment that will reduce the burden on land and the “disguised unemployment” in the rural economy of the State. According to industrial experts, if the Tatas back out of West Bengal, it will create a “ripple effect” in the industry, severely hampering future investment in the State and crushing hopes of an industrial resurgence.
The State government found support in Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, who during a recent visit to Kolkata told reporters, “Industrialisation is a must for development. I do not know of any country in the world where development has taken place focussing solely on agriculture. If the Tatas back out of Singur, it may imperil the industrial future of West Bengal. Concerned parties should try to resolve this matter through talks.”
The government has swung into action to allay the fears created in the industry and among the people of West Bengal by Kant’s statement and the Trinamool’s subsequent threat of staging an indefinite siege in Singur.
At a function on August 5 celebrating the birth anniversary of the legendary Marxist leader Muzzafar Ahmed, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: “Whatever the obstructions, neither the Tatas nor the State government is going to back out. There is no reason to worry. There will be more projects like the one in Singur, providing more opportunity for employment for the new generation.” He said land was acquired in Singur strictly according to the Central government’s guidelines and “not an inch in excess of the requirement was taken”.
Like his Industries Minister, he made it clear that there could be no returning of land to disgruntled farmers. “That would mean the end of the project. Then what excuse would I give the 6,000 youths of the State waiting to get employment there?” he said.
At the same time, the State government is exploring the possibility of rehabilitating these farmers on land in the vicinity by providing them opportunities to learn new skills.
SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
Volume 25 - Issue 17 :: Aug. 16-29, 2008GRAPHIX: THE TELEGRAPH