Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day 6 of Mamata's dharna in Singur

Time to save or sink
Fresh bid after CM’s all-issue draft hits wall

Calcutta, Aug. 29: Mediators in different parts of the country have begun what appears to be a last-ditch attempt to rescue the Singur small-car project.

The frenetic drive came against the backdrop of inactivity at the Singur plant that declared a forced holiday after a day of blockade and intimidation by supporters of Mamata Banerjee’s siege.

“Our workers have not come to work today,” a Tata Motors spokesperson said.

Sources said the Tatas were assessing the situation and officials were “worried”. Asked whether the project would be relocated, a source said: “Fifty-fifty.”

The final decision is expected after Ratan Tata, who is now in Singapore, returns to India by the weekend.

The latest peace initiative, which involves interlocutors in Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai, seeks to persuade the government and the Tatas to agree to locating outside the main complex some ancillary units that have not been set up yet. But Trinamul sources said they haven’t yet got any indication from the government that ancillaries would be shifted.

Higher compensation could also be offered. The government is working on a package for future land acquisitions, too.

An official in the chief minister’s secretariat said tonight that another letter might be sent to the Trinamul leader.

Mamata sought to distance herself from Thursday’s strong-arm tactics that seem to have pushed the fate of the project to the brink, saying “people associated with an NGO” had “appealed” to some workers not to report for work. The NGO chief said she would continue to “sing songs” in front of the factory gates if the workers turned up for work again.

Abused and heckled, few workers are expected to return in a hurry. Some siege supporters had camped outside the gates from early morning to block the workers. Around 11am, most of them returned to their respective camps, having learnt that the management had asked the employees not to turn up.

The fresh round of back-channel mediations followed the collapse on Thursday of an unpublicised initiative to get Mamata to agree to have a dialogue with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on the assurance that the stage would be set after accommodating her concerns.

“We renew the appeal for a peaceful settlement of the Singur imbroglio by way of a meeting with you. In the course of the meeting (between the chief minister and Mamata), all the issues that you have raised will be fully discussed,” said a draft letter from the government side that reached Mamata on Thursday afternoon.

She was then seated on the dais at Singur, surrounded by leaders and workers of her party and its allies. Initially, Mamata, who is said to be amenable to a negotiated settlement and looking for some breathing space, was keen on interpreting the draft in a positive light.

But Mamata allowed herself to be influenced by those around her — several belonging to fringe groups — who began to punch holes in the draft, Trinamul sources said. The allies pointed to the absence of the key phrase they were looking for: 400 acres.

The government responded quickly, asking Mamata to insert all the issues raised by her so that both sides can discuss them. However, by then, Mamata had slipped back into the familiar aggressive mode.


Trained and hired, a cry for jobs

Singur, Aug. 29: Thirty-odd Singur youths employed at the Nano plant today held their own demonstration on Durgapur Expressway against Mamata Banerjee’s six-day-old siege of their factory.

They reached the highway around 12.15pm from Khasherchak, 3km from Mamata’s seat of protest. Carrying placards that condemned “anti-industry movements” without naming Mamata or her party, they shouted slogans against the “mindless” dharna for half an hour.

Most said they had done courses at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) before receiving hands-on training at Tata Motors’ Pune and Singur plants. Already fearful about their future after receiving threats from the land agitators, they took to the streets after being told by the factory management not to report for work today because of the volatile situation outside the plant gates.

“The management told us over the phone not to come today. We won’t let any party spoil our career by doing politics,” said Santanu Mullick, who did an ITI course on automobiles and works in the factory’s engine shop.

“We don’t want Tata to go back. We want work to resume from tomorrow,” said Shabik Patra of Beltola, a factory technician in his early 20s.

“We don’t belong to any political party but we are educated and know what is good for us. We are being threatened if we report for work. We cannot take it any more, so we are speaking out.”

A little distance away, an oblivious Mamata was announcing that her agitation would continue before rain forced her to cut the speech short.

The Nano workers’ rally passed peacefully under the watchful eyes of eight policemen, who told them to disperse at 12.45pm and escorted them to Gopalnagar village. “Trinamul supporters were on their way to the dharna and there could have been a clash,” a policeman explained.

Another 120-odd Singur youths — selected by Tata Motors from villages like Beraberi, Malpara, Gopalnagar and Joymollah — did not join the rally but were equally desperate for work to resume at the plant.

“We were surprised when the management declared a holiday, although we understand they did it for our safety after yesterday’s road blockade in front of the factory gates,” said Soumya Saha, 18, at his home in Beraberi where he had returned after four months’ training in Tata Motors’ Pune unit.

Three months ago, he joined the Singur unit’s trim chassis final (TCF) section for six months’ training, which is to be followed by a 15-month apprenticeship at the factory.

“The day I heard the Tatas would set up a car factory here, I began dreaming. I could not believe it when they selected me seven months ago. Now I don’t know what the future holds,” the teen said, running his fingers nervously through his hair.

Soumya’s father Ashish gave up his two bighas for the project in the hope his only son would get a Tata job.

Soumya remembers the day he received his first stipend, of Rs 1,700. “I bought a packet of sweets. I’ll never forget the pleasure of buying my parents and sister something with my own, hard-earned money.”

Chinmoy Ghosh of Malpara, who passed his HS in 2006, said: “My parents’ dream had come true when Tata selected me. Now Mamata is playing with the fate of over 150 families.”

The tall, dark youth, whose father gave up his one-bigha plot for the factory, said Save Farmland Committee supporters were threatening him and his colleagues.

“Every morning when we go to the factory, they shout at us, ‘kaje jachchhish ja, kintu mone rakhish thik moto phirte parbi na (fine, go to work, but remember you may not return safely)’.”


Govt works on talking points

Calcutta, Aug. 29: If Mamata Banerjee comes to the talks table, the government will place before her a proposal to offer alternative plots to landlosers in all future acquisitions, CPM sources said.

The sources added that some CPM leaders were open to considering alternative plots for the unwilling landlosers in Singur, as Jyoti Basu had suggested when Mamata approached him earlier. Other leaders, however, had cited how Basu was later convinced that such a move “would open a pandora’s box”.

According to the government proposal, those who lose an acre or more will receive 3-6 shataks (33 shataks equal one bigha) of land that they can “exploit commercially”. Those who give up less than an acre would receive 100 square feet of “built-up space”.

Besides, the compensation for the acquired land would be worked out so that it comes close to its prospective value. Landlosers will also receive an annuity, with the company that gets the land sharing the burden.

Although the sources said these proposals were not “Singur-specific”, CPM state secretary Biman Bose today renewed his appeal to Mamata to agree to talks and present her own “alternative proposals”.

He stressed the “need to ensure sustainable livelihood for all landlosers in Singur so that compensation to them is not less than their income from agriculture”.

The CPM has also sought proposals on alternative rehabilitation packages from its allies in the Left Front, which meets next week.

Although Bose denied the CPM would ask front partners to engage Mamata in track II communication, other state secretariat members said they would welcome any move by Trinamul to “put forward its proposals to a third party” if that helps break the deadlock.

Bose said Mamata could continue her “satyagraha” while talking to the government. He said: “The government has shown commendable restraint despite the intimidation of workers and foreign engineers at the Tata Motors site. I appeal to the Trinamul chief to continue her satyagraha in Gandhian fashion as she had promised. She need not withdraw it to join the discussion with the government.”


‘Peace’ on Trinamul lips

Singur, Aug. 29: Mamata Banerjee today washed her hands of last evening’s blockade in which hundreds of personnel working at the small-car plant were held up for over three hours and threatened.

“Yesterday’s was an isolated incident…. Ours is a satyagraha and we don’t have any intention of hurting anybody or causing disruption,” Mamata said today.

“People associated with an NGO under the leadership of a social activist had appealed to some workers to consider whether to report for work or join us,” she explained.

Around 100 protesters had waylaid busloads of people outside the plant’s gate No. 5 when they were leaving the site at 5pm. The buses rolled out at 8.20pm, after a warning that they should not venture into the site again.

By “social activist”, Mamata meant Anuradha Talwar of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti.

Talwar said she was not aware of Mamata’s statement, but added: “Trinamul supporters and members of various other organisations were there when we were singing songs outside the plant.”

Becharam Manna, the face of the Save Farmland Committee and a local Trinamul leader, was also there with his supporters last evening. “I was not there when the gathering took place outside the gate. I reached later and I also requested the Tata Motors employees to stay away from work,” he said.

Members of outfits like the United Students’ Democratic Front, Jana Sangharsha Committee and the Group for Rural Alternative Movement were also around the gate.

While the blockade was on, a plant employee returning home on his motorcycle was beaten up.

“We don’t have the intention of spreading violence. We have no intention to stop work,” Mamata said today.

Talwar and her supporters insisted that they would “sit outside the gates and sing songs” if the plant employees returned to work. “We had requested them not to come to work from tomorrow and I think they have responded to our call,” Talwar said.

IG (law and order) Raj Kanojia said the employees did not join work because of intimidation and threats.



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