Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fear and discontent before the siege

FEAR AND DISCONTENT BEFORE THE SIEGE Villagers affected by the Tata factory in Singur feel that the change in political dispensation has not made much difference, writes Rohini Chaki

Outside the wall
As the car turns left, off the Durgapur Expressway on to the muddy tracks of Joymulla village in Singur, the wall is hard to miss. It is a symbolic barrier separating not just the Tata Motors factory site from the villages that make up Singur block, not just industry from agriculture, but also one kind of political affiliation from another, as well as the people from their land. A moat lines the wall, drawbridges in front of the gates and heavy police security make it a fortress more than a factory.
I visited Singur in the last week of July, two days before an engineer employed by Tata Motors was beaten up by members of the Trinamul Congress-backed Krishi Jomi Raksha Committee. Around two months after the new TMC-led dispensation took over the panchayat at Singur, the mood is one of continuing dissatisfaction. There is a pervasive air of alertness, bordering on fear. The residents are practised in looking over their shoulders when they speak without the sanction of their leaders. At Joymulla, a villager begins to speak of some of the advantages of having the Tata factory, meagre though these are. He claims that the Tatas organize free doctors’ consultations every Thursday. As we talk, a man passing by on a motorcycle stops and demands to know what we are discussing. It is clear from the discomfort on my interlocutor’s face that our conversation is over. The men on motorcycles patrolling the villages of Singur travel alone and not in cadre groups; they belong to a different political party. But the fear they inspire is in proportion to the power they have won.
At Dobandi, villagers speak of the way holes were made in the wall to allow floodwater to seep out of the factory site during the rains. Consequently, the area outside it became flooded — for the first time in years. They talk with bitterness of the dismal failure of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, saying that their job cards guaranteed them no more than a week’s worth of work, and that too, only for some.
Dobandi, right outside the factory walls, is particularly hard-hit. Most of its residents are landless sharecroppers with no skills other than farming. Two men are eager to talk as we sit outside the Dobandi Club house, overlooking a heavily-guarded factory entrance. “We collect money from any truck that goes inside,” says one, “Sometimes five or six of us help unload whatever is on the trucks, and get around Rs 300 for it.” “We are not working for the Tatas, mind you,” he is quick to add, “Without us, these trucks would never have made it inside.” They are supporters of the TMC, but are far from content with the work it has done. Clearly, their lot has not changed. The more outspoken of the two takes me aside and informs me that party-workers now encourage people to seek work at the factory, whereas earlier this was strictly forbidden. “Earlier, they would tell us to go inside, loot, and come out. Now they tell us to find work, and not to steal. They say they will look the other way. Jekhane Lanka, shekhane Rabon, bujhle (Where there is Lanka, there is Ravan, understand)?”
The mistrust of the new party in power is common to nearly all the villagers who are willing to speak. The common complaint is that the promises made before the elections have not been kept, and that while the party line ostensibly remains the same, the actions and instructions given to workers have changed. Whoever comes to speak to the villagers is treated with this mistrust. Several times (including at the TMC party office) I was asked whether I was working undercover for the Tatas. It is a sad irony for these people, living in the shadow of the wall, that they can trust no one on either side of it.
Close to Dobandi, a colony of unpainted brick hutments have been built to house those families whose homes and sometimes lands fell on what is now the other side. Displaced villagers from Bajemelia, Khasherbheri and other areas of Singur are being housed here. There are, on an average, three families to a hut. Each family, comprising anything between four to eight members, is allotted one room. No toilets have been constructed either here or in Dobandi. The huts have raised dalans to keep floodwater from entering the rooms. The entire colony is submerged in slush, sometimes knee-deep in it. The people living here don’t know whether their dwellings were built by the government or the Tatas; they appear to be more comfortable not knowing. During the monsoons, their single source of drinking water, a tubewell, is covered in slush, making the water unsafe for drinking.
Most of the inhabitants of this fast-proliferating colony were workers at the factory who have now been laid off. For having ventured into the other side, they are now victims of unforgiving social exclusion, so much so that their panchayat does not recognize them as deserving of any support. Many of them have salaries outstanding for work for as many as five months (mostly as security guards). Some have had their dues cleared only recently. But there are many others who are yet to receive the outstanding amounts. A young girl in Joymulla shows me the embroidery she does to make ends meet, while the men in her family wait for their dues from the factory. She earns a paltry Rs 35 for each piece of fabric she embroiders, which takes four days to finish. At Khasherbheri, some women have formed a small group and take orders for similar needlework. But orders are few and they lack the business acumen to search for potential buyers.
There is a stolid silence surrounding the whereabouts of the CPI(M) workers, some of whom sought employment inside the factory. “We are not in touch with them,” is the common refrain, followed by a stern refusal to say any more. Perhaps a strong sense of betrayal prompts such resolve.
At the TMC party office at Beraberi, Dudh Kumar Dhara, the new pradhan, veers between helplessness and bovine self-satisfaction. Lolling on the chatai with his retinue, he politely tells us that the gram unnayan committee had not yet been formed, and that the panchayat office itself had been under lock and key till a couple of days ago. Thus, no discussions had been held either about the appalling lack of sanitation in most of the villages, or the arrangement of alternative employment for the displaced farmers and landless labourers. A workshop on NREGS had been held, but they believed that to implement the scheme afresh would take six months at least. On the other hand, they were very forthcoming with the names of villages that needed aid. Possibly because the friend I was accompanying had, with her team, arranged for aid earlier. Smug in his party’s success, Dhara and his fellow members were far better aware of the statistics of their victory than of the problems of the people who had voted them in. They were open about their disinterest in the lives of those who had sought employment inside the factory and were now suffering for it. Always polite, even when reminding us that SFI members pretending to be NGO volunteers had been beaten up for their deceitfulness, they were keen on knowing our thoughts about generating employment among the villagers, since they had none of their own.
At Khasherbheri, however, a TMC member was plainly cynical about the success of self-employment programmes. “These people are used to the sloth that comes with the farming life. They are used to working a few hours a day and taking it easy during parts of the year. They are unwilling to learn any new skills because they refuse to think long-term.” He was also confident that even those who were doing part-time work at the factory, would join hands in breaking down its walls when the time came. “They will never go against the party agenda. They are starving now, so if they can earn some money by unloading sacks of sand or stone chips, good for them. What they do in secret is not the party’s business,” he smiled. However, violence appears to be the party’s business. Another member declares at Dobandi, with considerable pride, that there would be violence that very evening. “Look at how many police vans they’ve deployed for us!” he exclaims, “Dhukte debo na! We will not let any outsiders enter, let’s see what they do.” News reports suggest he kept his promise.