Thursday, February 21, 2008


Singur and Nandigram have forced renewed debate on some of the most burning questions of our time. Shoma Chaudhury travels to the hotspots to trace the roots of unrest and its lessons. Photographs by Shibani Chaudhury

The frontline: A women’s rally in Nandigram protesting against false FIRs and arrests
The first thing you experience when you enter Singur is shock. There are reasons why many critical tensions of our time have come brimming forth in this small agrarian community. When you are there, you understand why. Singur has been in the news for eight months, but nothing in the media has prepared you for the beauty or prosperity of the place. This is not a destitute patch of barren land from which people should want to be evicted for some monetary compensation. Singur is emerald country. Even an urban cynic, unmoved by pastoral idylls, can see in an instant that this is no poor man’s burden. Land here is wealth. Singur is merely 45 kilometres from Kolkata, runs flush along the Durgapur highway, and lies between the Damodar, Hooghly and Kana rivers. Almost every villager’s house here is pucca, a secure shelter of cement and polished red stone. The fields are lush with crop — rice, jute, potato, and a myriad vegetables. And every 500 yards there is a pond swimming with ducks. Beauty never plays a role in the reckonings of macroeconomics. That could be a mistake. Human beings respond to beauty. They defend the things they love. The colour green has meaning in Singur. It lives. It has a weight and texture and smell that is easy to forget in a city. It spells generations of rootedness in land. It spells a self-sufficient way of life that people are willing to fight and die for.

Singur first slipped into the news in May last year. Soon after the Left Front government was sworn into power for the seventh time in a row in West Bengal, the CM, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya announced that Tata Motors was going to set up a car factory in Singur. Bengal has been suffering a stagnant economy for decades. This was to be the proud flagship of a new, aggressively industrialising Bengal. In popular middle-class imagination, the Tata name usually equals progress and growth. But trouble began almost immediately. Rallies, demonstrations, petitions, and then as the government persisted in acquiring the land, escalating tension and violence. September 25 and December 2, 2006, are folkloric dates in Singur. Scores of villagers are still smarting at the memory of the police action, lathi charge, tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests. For us, in our safe enclaves, these words have lost meaning with overuse. Unless one faces the might of the State oneself, one cannot approximate the pain of wood thudding on skin, the searing burn of tear gas. One cannot approximate the fear and anger ordinary people feel on the ground. On September 25, about 7,000 workers led by the Krishi Jami Rakha Committee — a conglomeration of parties, activists, and workers’ groups — had gathered at the Block Development Office to protest anomalies in the disbursal of compensation. In the police action that followed, Rajkumar Bhool, the 24-year-old son of a landless couple, was so badly beaten he collapsed by a pond and died. Several people were injured and 72 activists, including 27 women and a two- and-a-half-year-old girl, were arrested, several under Section 307 of the IPC, that is “attempt to murder.” This incident increased the groundswell of anger. In response, the government clamped Section 144 of the Cr PC on the Singur region. On December 2, flanked by police, as the government began to fence off the acquired land, thousands of people gathered to stop the fencing. They were lathi-charged by the police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF). Women complained of verbal and physical abuse. Sixty villagers were arrested, 18 among them women. All were charged with IPC, Section 307. On December 18, 18-year-old Tapasi Malik’s body was found smouldering in the fields. Since then, Singur has continued to boil, with the government asserting that the Tata Motors small car factory would come up there at any cost.

The colour green has meaning in Singur. It lives. It spells generations of rootedness in land

One might wonder why one should be concerned with local trouble over a small car factory project in a faraway place. In fact, most people in urban India reading about Singur in small news snippets say, “But the farmers are being paid adequate compensation, why don’t they move?” Or as an Indian friend from America put it, even more dismissively, “Oh Singur — that Mamata Banerjee drama!” He could’ve been speaking for almost all of India’s middle-class.

Sitting in Delhi and Bombay and Bangalore, it is difficult to imagine what’s going on in these places. But Singur, and much more powerfully, Nandigram, the other seething faultline in Bengal, are not just about “adequate compensation” and competitive party politics. They are white hot samples — symptoms — of what’s happening in every corner of India. Raigad, Kalinganagar, Dadri, Kalahandi, Kakinada, Aurangabad, Bijapur, Chandrapore, Haripur, Bachera, Chowringa, Tirupati, Mand. The underlying stories everywhere are the same. Land takeover in the name of development or big industry. Summary eviction and displacement. Inadequate compensation. Lack of informed consent. Police action and state oppression. The breakdown of democratic process. And the arrogant sense that unless you have a high, urban standard of living and speak English, you are not a legitimate Indian.

By raising the temperature then, Singur and Nandigram have brought to head several of the most crucial questions of our time. Which path to development is India taking? One custom-built to fit its complex socio-political realities, or one imposed top down? How democratic is that path? Who will bear the “pain of growth”? What will shining India do with simmering India? And most importantly, if our governments do not course correct, how will simmering India express itself? It is undoubtedly true that sections of India have seen massive growth in the last five years. We, in the urban centres, who have benefited from that economic buoyancy, we who are coasting on massive salaries and a giddy new buying power, might find it difficult to see this as lopsided growth, but the most hawkish reformer would find it hard to deny that India’s galloping gdp is being forged on an under-layer of deep resentment.

And lava always finds its volcanic mouth. Visit the first house in Singur and the stories start to flow. Srikant Koley, 31, a swarthy, muscular man, used to own five bighas of land in Gopalnagar. This has been acquired for the Tata project and now falls within the fenced-off area. From being a self-sufficient farmer, he has become a daily-wage labourer. Yet he refuses compensation. Leaning scornfully on his cycle, pointing to the rich vegetable patch around him, he says, “We hear the Tatas have spent Rs 1,50,000 crore to acquire Corus, and here it is using the government to forcibly take our land away on subsidised rates? Are they such big beggars? Our land is our wealth, it is our life’s security. I’ll gift them my land then, but I will not take money for it.” “If I sell out, what will happen to the people who work on my field,” asks 50-year-old, Pratap Ghosh, owner of three and a half acres of land, now fenced off. A giant granary towers behind him. “Who will watch out for the discontent and unrest this is going to create? We are a community, we help each other. We can’t all be absorbed by the Tata factory. If I sell, I’ll just be creating dacoits in my own house. Money is temporary, how long can it last? Land is perennial.”

Easy picking: Police clear up a protest in Kolkata against the Tata plant
AP Photo

Which path to development is India taking? One custom-built for its reality or one imposed top-down?
Everywhere you go, the refrain is the same. Money is temporary. Land is perennial. It is true. Most people in Singur have tiny land holdings — often no more than a few cottahs or bighas, which is less than an acre. Given the fertility of the land, this is enough to afford people a proud, self-sufficient life, selling would earn most of them nothing more than a couple of lakhs, at the offered rate of Rs 8-12 lakh an acre. Where would they go with this little money? What work would they do? Most development projects have turned rooted, centuries-old communities into unwanted, roving urban populations. The Tata factory will take the farmers’ lands but not their dwellings. Why should farmers want this? As Shantana Malik, a feisty woman with a gift for acerbic doggerel, says, “Why should I sell my land and swab their floors? We have enough to feed all of us; we don’t need to become menial workers in their houses. This land is my mother. I am ready to die for it. I will fight but I will not sell.”

The Left Front government and the Tatas have repeatedly asserted that the trouble in Singur has been crafted by the agitational politics of Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress. (See the interview with the Tata Motors MD on page 13) They could be right. Singur is largely a Trinamool stronghold and Becharam Manna, one of the main convenors of the Krishi Jami Rakha Committee, spearheading the movement in Singur, is a Trinamool leader. (Incidentally, he is currently in Calcutta Medical Hospital, brutally beaten by the police, and off-limits for media.) But as Ranabir Samaddar, director, Calcutta Research Group says, political parties cannot create a people’s movement unless there is genuine local combustion.

'You can’t stop the (Tata’s) car factory from coming up this way... No one can stop it. Singur hobe, hobe, hobe'

West Bengal CM

That this combustion exists seems undoubted. For one, the government and the Tatas assert that hundreds of locals are already working voluntarily in the fenced off land. To a casual visitor, this seems like a false claim. The fenced area is patrolled by large contingents of police, and almost every visible worker on the field wields a lathi. Merely approaching the fence arouses startling hostility. The government and Tata Motors also assert that 600 of the 997 acres have been paid for and consensually acquired. Activists and locals assert that dissenting affidavits for 447 acres has been filed in the Calcutta High Court. Whatever the true arithmetic, the unrest in Singur has raised concerns that a neutral ear would find it hard not to be drawn into.

The most burning issue among these is the politics of land. According to Debabrata Bandhopadhyaya (ex-director, Asian Development Bank, former secretary, ministry of rural development, and the current Bihar Land Reforms Commissioner), in its bid to re-industrialise, the Left Front government is bent upon acquiring 1,40,000 (one lakh forty thousand) acres of agricultural land. This is an astronomical figure. How justified is it?

One has to travel physically to Singur or Nandigram — or any of the contentious development spots in the country — to understand the scale of what is being spoken about. Imagine your home, your life — all of sprawling South Delhi, for instance — suddenly being acquired for a cutting edge space satellite project you will have no relation with. Imagine yourself being given no room for negotiation. Imagine yourself becoming a pawn to “public purpose”. Imagine yourself being asked to move and give up your job for a paltry sum of money. Imagine yourself being asked to carve a new life for yourself elsewhere — no one can tell you where. Now reverse the situation.

'Depriving agriculture of the most fertile land in the name of SEZs is not the policy of the Left Front government'

CPI general secretary

Under what circumstances is the takeover of agricultural land for industry a fair transaction? Defenders of capitalist globalisation and big industry say that big projects like the Tata Motors small car factory will generate thousands of jobs and kick start a sluggish economy. But there are already 56,000 factories lying shut in Bengal, and almost 3.7 million acres of uncultivable land, argue opponents. Why not start new industries there? A survey of just 500 sick or closed industry units by Webcon (a wing of the government) has revealed almost 42,000 acres of acquired land lying unused in Bengal. What would a land availability survey of 56,000 factories reveal?

It is in this context that the unrest in Singur becomes more understandable. The government is acquiring land in Singur — which has 220 percent crop density — under the archaic 1894 Land Acquisition Act, citing “public purpose”. But what is “public purpose” about a private, profit making project, people ask, regardless of the jobs it might generate? The Left Front government is apparently spending Rs 140 crore on acquiring the land. But the Tatas will pay only Rs 20 crore after 5 years of getting the land. Why should the government incur this cost on behalf of a private company? Why is it playing intermediary? And is the price for land being offered really fair? Recently, in Rajarhat, a suburb of Kolkata, land was reportedly acquired by hidco, a wing of the government at Rs 5,000-Rs 15,000 a cottah. Today, the price of land there is Rs 10-20 lakh a cottah. The Tatas were shown four other sites. Why did they pick Singur, 45 kilometres from Kolkata?

'The Tatas spent
Rs 150,000 cr for Corus, and here they are using the state to take our land on subsidised rates'

A displaced Singur farmer

There are other issues at Singur. Monetary compensation to landowners does not take into account the thousands of sharecroppers and landless daily labourers who are dependent on this land for their livelihood. Who will square with their dispossession, their eviction from a symbiotic community system? As Pratap Ghosh says, “Who will watch out for all the discontent this is going to create?”

In many ways, Singur has been the most interesting test case of the latent tensions roiling across the country, because all the “best practices” players have collided here. The Left Front has traditionally been a pro-people, pro-labour party. The Tatas are widely seen as one of the most ethical business houses, a company of nation builders. And Bengal itself is a highly literate state with a strong tradition of people’s movements. Their collision was bound to sediment the questions that have been lurking just below the surface of India’s new economy.

The impact of Singur on Bengal politics cannot be overestimated. It has created unlikely bedfellows of the Congress, suci, Trinamool and the BJP. But even at its whitest heat, Singur was merely the dry run to the real catalyst that has shifted political alignments and changed the tone of development conversations not just in Bengal, but the rest of the country.


Entering Nandigram in East Midnapore, four hours from Kolkata, is like entering a zone of civil war. At Chandramarhi, 15 odd kilometres from Nandigram, one’s car is stopped by raging cpm cadres. Fists are banged on bonnet, door handles are tested violently. Angry voices ask what one’s business is in Nandigram. A press card gets you through, but the police have to restrain the surging cadres. We have lost family members too, they shout. Write about us too. At Nandigram, the scene is a concave mirror. The area is a fortress. No car can enter. Villagers have cut off access by digging massive trenches in their roads every few hundred yards. Bridges have been broken. All night vigils are kept. The slightest hint of trouble and the sound of azaan rents the air, conch shells start to blow. Thousands gather with sticks and household sickles.

Citadel farms: Guerrilla tactics, trenches cut by villagers in Nandigram make movement a near impossibility

Siege without, siege within. cpm workers — and hired goons — faithful to the government on the attack line. Villagers of Nandigram at the defence.

Again, no account in the media can prepare you for the physical reality. The sheer scale of the intended land takeover takes your breath away. Thirty-eight mouzas. More than a 100 villages. A land rich in rice, coconut, fish, and betel leaf. The revolt seems almost inevitable. Nandigram is Singur magnified thousand fold. There is no mistaking the groundswell. Here, no one can point at political foul play. No one can allege Mamata’s hand. Nandigram has been a Left Front stronghold for 35 years. Almost 80 percent of its population votes for constituents of the Left Front. Yet today, almost all the villagers of Nandigram are estranged from the party. Threat to their land has forged a new identity. Bhoomi Ucched Protirodh Committee — a people’s movement unlike any in recent time. Comprised of local villagers, left intellectuals, Naxal groups, Congress, suci, tmc, pdci, and the Jamait-e-Ulema-i-Hind. We will give our blood, not our land. That’s the war cry. Nandigram is an 80 percent Muslim area. But Hindus or Muslims, you can’t tell the difference. And the women are leading from the front.

Singur and Nandigram have brought to a head several of the most crucial questions of our time
There are reasons why many of the critical tensions of our time have found a volcanic mouth in Nandigram. The region has a proud history. A role in the Khilafat movement of 1921, the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, and the 1942 movement against the British. Pichuboni, their forefathers used to shout, we will not turn back. That clarion call has found an echo in what the reputed writer Mahasweta Devi calls, “the greatest freedom struggle of this new century.” Nandigram was also the crucible of the Tebhaga Movement, the legendary peasant struggle of 1946. It is trained in the politics of land. It has a ready list of local heroes to draw from: Khudiram Bose, Matangini Hydra, and ironically, the cpm leader, Bhopal Panda.

News of an impending acquisition had been doing the rounds in Nandigram since July, 2006. The Jamait-e-Ulema-i-Hind — a Muslim body led by Siddiqullah Choudhury and Abdus Samad — supported by cpi (ml) activists like Sumit Sinha, and left wing intellectuals like Pranab Banerjee and Debojit Dutta of the Forum of Free Thinkers, had been working the villages, holding corner meetings, seeking people’s opinion. Six hundred forms had been distributed asking people what their earnings were and whether they wanted to part with their land. Only 12 had consented. So on January 2, when the cpm leader Lakshman Seth and the Haldia Development Council announced the summary acquisition of 28,000 acres of land for a chemical hub and sez by the Salem Group (known for its strong links with the dictatorial Suharto regime), Nandigram was a filament waiting to catch fire.

The stories of repressive State violence and breakdown of democratic processes in Singur and Nandigram are depressingly the same. Arrests, lathi-charge, illegal detention. On January 3, a deputation of several hundred villagers went to the Gram Panchayat office in Kalicharanpur to enquire about the acquisition. They were brutally attacked by armed police at Bhuta Morh. Several villagers were injured. A police jeep also caught fire. Over the next few days, there was a steady build up of police and cpm goons across the canal in neighbouring Khejuri. On the night of January 6, fresh violence broke out. cpm cadres stormed Nandigram at Sonachura village. Four villagers including a 13-year-old boy were killed. The villagers retaliated by setting Shankar Samanta, a cpm leader, on fire. The trail of violence and counter-violence has continued unabated since. Khejuri is still a war zone. But the bleary-eyed villagers will not cave in.

sezs have come to be the most bitterly argued economic idea in recent times. They have sent a rift down governments in Bengal, the Centre, and several other states. Their defenders tell you they are high incentive zones meant to woo big export oriented industries. In fact, they are a thinly disguised ploy for real estate profiteering. As things stand, sezs are the East India Company all over again. They are constructed to be duty free enclaves within the country that are beyond its jurisdiction. They will have huge tax holidays, no labour laws, no excise duties, no restrictions on foreign direct investment. They will have unfair advantage over companies operating in domestic tariff areas. They will be governed by independent commissioners with extraordinary powers. They will be built on huge tracts of land, running into thousands of acres, acquired often by force by the government for “public purpose”. Yet developers will have to use only 25 percent of the land for industry. A whopping 75 percent of the land can be used for other purposes. As AB Bardhan, general secretary of the cpi, says, “Nandigram should be a lesson. Which industrial project requires 10,000 acres or 5,000 acres, or even 1,000 acres? sezs are just a way of giving land cheap to developers.”

The list of negatives is even longer than that. But whichever side of the argument you are on, no one can deny that the worst thing about the sezs is the rampant pace at which they have been introduced in the country. Given their giant implications there should have been a national debate on the issue. Instead the Central sez Bill was introduced on May 10, 2005 and passed by both Houses of Parliament on May 12, 2005! In its very first meeting, the Board of Approvals cleared 148 of the 166 proposals before it!

The Finance Minister believes sezs will lose the exchequer Rs 1,00,000 crore over the next four years and not create a proportionate spurt in employment. In fact over the last five-six years India has been witnessing jobless growth. Yet in just one year, 300 sezs in India have been cleared, 300 others are in process. Compare this with the fact that there are only 400 sezs in the world, and China — the model for our economic hawks — has only 6!

If it wasn’t for Nandigram, none of this would have come up for debate. But as violence in Nandigram spiralled, a series of pull-backs began to cascade across the country. On January 8, pm Manmohan Singh, a strong votary of sezs, promised a new humane rehabilitation policy in three months, a shocking admission that none had been in place till then. On January 19, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya announced no sezs or industrial projects would be started without surveys, land maps, and consultation with panchayats — fundamental processes that should have been followed from the outset. On January 23, media reports spoke of still other impacts in Bengal. dlf was to acquire 6,000 acres of land in Dankuni for a township and industrial park. Urban Development Minister, Asok Bhattacharya had earlier set an August 2007 deadline for “India’s largest private township.” Now, preliminary notices for only 156 acres of marshy land was issued, the rest of the land was to be “investigated”. dlf has since announced a measure of free housing and education to all its oustees! The 1,740 acre Uluberia industrial park in Howrah was also put on hold, pending “intensive survey first”. Land acquisition for the the Barasat-Raichak highway was stalled till June, while the land map is changed to avoid graves, canals, residences and fertile tracts. The sez at Kulpi has been indefinitely suspended, and Venugopal Dhoot of Videocon, who was slated to open three sezs in Bengal, was quoted in Mint on February 19, saying he would offer equity shares to the farmers his project displaces. Further, that there should be a freeze on sezs till the government came up with a comprehensive and cogent rehabilitation package for people whose land is acquired.

Events in Bengal suggest that one cannot road-roll an economic boom in India. It is idle to get trapped into simple factory vs farm, industry vs agriculture debates. Economic ideas in this country have to be more agile than that. At the height of the Singur and Nandigram unrest, an editorial in The Telegraph said, “History does not offer the option of first obtaining consent then proceeding with industrialisation. Industrialisation must take place, therefore land must be obtained. How it is obtained — with consent or otherwise, is a subject of political management.”

It is this kind of hard position that events in Bengal belie. “Development with a human face” cannot be an empty promise in India. Human faces have an uncomfortable way of asserting themselves. Two weeks after Nandigram erupted, around 150 activist groups from far flung corners of India gathered at Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, near Nagpur. They had come to share experiences. More significantly, they had come to merge causes. In other parts of India, groups much more militant than these are also making common cause. Their grievances are very similar: they demand democratic process. Consultation. Consent. Participation. And most of all, an effort for equitable growth.

That is the fundamental question the people of Nandigram and Singur have thrown up. Does development in India have to have only one face? Or can we find the courage of imagination to understand that wealth can have different natures?

With Shantanu Guha Ray and Avinash Dutt

Mar 03 , 2007