Fields of foment
Singur has been witnessing a sea-change ever since Tata Motors picked it as the site for its small car plant. The ‘bargadars’ are opposing the government that had given them a share of the land. But the ‘jotdars’ have come to the CPM’s aid, reports Debashis Bhattacharyya
It’s a role reversal neither Joydeb Ghosh nor Ganesh Koley ever envisaged in Singur, a rural block in Bengal’s Hooghly district. Yesterday’s jotdar (landlord) and a target of the ruling Left, Ghosh is today a comrade-in-arms of the CPM. Koley, originally a bargadar (a share cropper) and a beneficiary of the Left Front government’s pioneering land reform, today views the ruling party as his enemy number one.
Singur, heaving with a political convulsion, has been witnessing a sea-change ever since the Tatas picked it as the site for a small car plant. Both Ghosh and Koley live in Gopalnagar, one of the five villages acquired, in part, to make room for the project. Yet, they have largely skirted each other’s shadows for the better parts of their lives. They live not only on the opposite ends of the village but on the opposite ends of the rural spectrum.
Ghosh, now in his late sixties, comes from the landed gentry and has always been treated as such by residents of Gopalnagar. Koley, in his mid-fifties, hails from a poor peasant family and toiled in others’ fields for years before he could buy bit by bit a six-bigha plot. He also set up a grocery shop at Singur bazar, which now sells goods worth Rs 3,000 a day.
Over the last 15 years, Koley built a concrete house with five rooms which he now shares with his extended family. He has a motorcycle and a colour television. In Singur, Koley is a success story, attributable to “Operation Barga”, the land reform programme that the Left Front government launched after it took Bengal in an electoral battle in 1977.
But the Left Front’s land reform seems to have come full circle in Singur. And as the CPM throws all its organisational might behind the Rs 1,000-crore car plant that Tata Motors proposes to set up over 997 acres, it’s not the bargadars but the jotdars who have come to the government’s aid. And no one knows it better than Ghosh and Koley. For the project, Ghosh readily sold 13 of the 20 bighas of his land he had little “control” over and made little money from. Koley is, however, loathe to part with three of the six bighas he had bought not just with money, as he says, but with sweat.
Singur is witnessing changes in rural dynamics under the Left Front rule. Operation Barga not only altered the power structures in rural Bengal but also dramatically changed the economic and social structures in the countryside. The rule of the jotdars was replaced with a “bargadar raj.”
“We maintain the land and pay all taxes and they (bargadars) reap the benefits. It’s so unjust,” says Barun Barui from the land-owning Barui family of Berabari, part of which falls under the Tata project. The 53-year-old man, his brother and cousins have sold 45 bighas (15 acres) for the project.
If villagers such as Koley have prospered, landowners Ghosh and Barui are a shadow of their former selves. They have lost much of their land under the Land Ceiling Act and what they are left with is often in the grips of the bargadars, who are too powerful politically to be admonished even if they don’t give the landowners their share of the produce. Their houses are crumbling — the Baruis call their run-down family house at Beraberi’s Baruipara a “nest of snakes” because of reptiles residing in its nooks and crannies. Many have ventured into small business. “I get angry when somebody calls me a jotdar,” Ghosh says.
To these landowners, the plant is a godsend. Bargadars might control their plots, but the land is officially in their names and they were only too keen to sell it. In any case, the land price the government offered was “too good to refuse,” they say. “We feel as if we were reborn,” maintains 45-year-old Ananta Barui, Barun’s brother. “In fact, I have told my wife that we should get a picture of Ratan Tata and do his puja every day as he has given back our lives.”
In contrast, the share-croppers and marginal farmers are despairing. To them, the project means nothing but doom. “If the government takes away more than half of my seven bighas of land, how are we going to survive,” asks Sanata Koley, a marginal farmer at Gopalnagar’s Koleypara. As it is, the yields from his land are too low and he has to till others’ land to feed his family of six.
To be sure, the Singur project today means different things to different people. To the CPM, which won the Assembly election earlier this year on a plank of industrialising Bengal, the plant is of great significance. The party believes that it will, if nothing else, signal its seriousness about industrialising Bengal and stemming the rising tide of the educated unemployed. For chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the project is also important for another reason—it will be a sound reaffirmation of his pro-industry stance the Bengali middle class is largely backing.
Yet in some ways, the turbulence over the plant — capable of cranking out annually 2.5 lakh cars — is possibly a sign of things to come as the state government prepares to acquire some 40,000 acres in districts near Calcutta for a slew of lined-up projects.
“Things are certainly not going to get any easier going by the way the state government has handled the Singur issue,” says political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Bhattacharyya says the government should have gone for a political consensus among political parties at the local level much the way it had at Rajarhat, where huge tracts were acquired without trouble some years ago to set up a satellite township.
Director of Industries M.V. Rao, deputed to oversee the land acquisition, says the government is paying Rs 8.5 lakh by way of compensation for an acre of land that yields a single crop a year and that 90 per cent of the acquired 997 acres comes under this category. For the remaining 10 per cent of the land, yielding two crops or more, farmers are being paid Rs 11.5 lakh per acre. Of some 12,000 identified land owners, including their legal heirs, 9,000 have together been paid Rs 79 crore.
Rao says land has over time got divided among family members and the yields from the fragmented land are too meagre to sustain most families. “Very few actually live off the land and either have jobs or are in business,” he says.
With rising input costs, Ghosh says a farmer can hardly earn Rs 5,000 from a bigha of land and he saw more economic sense in selling it than leaving it to share-croppers who till his plots. From the Rs 36 lakh he has received as compensation for his 13-bigha plot, he hopes to earn a “handsome” interest. He says the sooner the plant comes up the better — he wants a dealership for the car for his son right in Singur.
“Those accusing the gov- ernment of snatching land from farmers have no idea of the rural reality in Bengal,” says Ranjit Mondal, sabhapati of the CPM-controlled Singur panchayat samity. “It is an opportunity for farmers.”
Not everyone in Singur agrees. Ganesh Koley’s wife, Minati, still remembers how she could not buy their son a sweet as she did not have 50 paise. They had no money to buy seeds and fertiliser for a one-bigha plot they first bought and “no one would lend us anything fearing we would not be able to repay it”.
Ganesh says land is not just a source of sustenance for the family but an “insurance policy”. It’s hard not to spend money, but you can put your land to use in many ways, he says. “The project will overturn all the gains we have made and bring only misery.”
At the moment, the Baruis, however, are enjoying the “windfall”. Ananta Barui has just bought a Hero Honda motorcycle from the Rs 21 lakh he received for his seven-and-a-half bigha of land. With brother Barun, who also received Rs 21 lakh, he wants to pull down the “nest of snakes” and build two small houses in its place for the 32-member extended family.
The government believes the “Singur file” is all but closed. Agitation or no agitation, all 997 acres required for the plant now belong to the government. “Land records have been changed and mutations done,” says Rao with an air of finality. As Koley looks sadly across his potato fields, the wintry sun sinks below the horizon. Ghosh is, however, waiting for a new sun to rise.
It is not the farmers but outsiders who are creating trouble in Singur.
— Biman Bose
If Sitaram Yechury can go to Maharashtra and protest against land grabbing for SEZs, we also have the right to come to Singur and protest.
— Medha Patkar
For Swarup Barui, land is money. He sold his plot in Singur — where land prices are rising because of the Tata car project — twice; first for Rs 20,000 to a fellow villager and now to the state government for Rs 1.63 lakh. Such cases are legion.
Barui, a kerosene dealer and a local leader of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPM’s youth wing, does not view it as a scam.
Others do. Activists protesting the car plant have already accused the government of compensating “a large number of people who are no longer land owners”.
To raise funds for his sister’s marriage, Barui sold his 2.5-bigha plot to Prasenjit Das just before the announcement that the Tata plant would be sited in Singur. But the land was not registered immediately as Das wanted to delay the registration and save a few thousand rupees. As a result, on government record, the plot remains in the name of Barui.
“Now the government offered Rs 1.63 lakh for this piece of land. There was no way I could resist the temptation and I gave it for the car plant,” he says. But he sees nothing wrong with the move.
“I will return Das the Rs 20,000 he paid me,” Barui says.