Thursday, October 23, 2008



“If someone took away your job, your place of work, wouldn’t you fight to get it back?” an angry man outside the clubhouse at Khasherbheri village in Singur asks me. We’re sitting on a raft-like structure made of split bamboo that juts into the lake underneath. What began as an interview with the Trinamul Congress party-worker and local pradhan, Dudh Kumar Dhara had, at the end of two hours and with the setting of the sun, become an incensed discussion with 30-odd Khasherbheri residents in semi-darkness. Soon after, I left a Singur plunged in darkness, amid busy murmurs of ‘meetings’ and plans.

I begin at the end of my visit to Singur because it is here that I was confronted most strongly with the associated concerns of the movement taking place there. Sitting in darkness among a group of people seething with anger and quick to antagonism, suddenly finding myself implicated in their struggle and made to feel guilty for my position in the socio-economic hierarchy, it is from their collective rage that certain truths began to emerge. It took the personal attacks of about two dozen impersonal strangers to arrive at some hard facts about differing attitudes, and about the manner in which truth itself becomes a manufactured product in an area of political strife.

Things have only just begun, I was told as I made my way into Dobandi village in Singur. I heard this echoed in Joymolla, in Khasherbheri, Bajemelia, Beraberi — all villages with inhabitants directly affected by the Nano plant. Everywhere, this prompted the question, “What now?” The answers were remarkable in the varied delusions and dilutions of information that influenced them. In Joymolla, Bikash is worried but hopeful. His family were willing land-sellers and he has been a probational employee of Tata Motors for over four months now. He is now undergoing training in Bandel. “We get paid Rs109 per day even during training. I’m learning a skill. My father works in the fields, but all my brothers had always looked for jobs. Agricultural yield is just too uncertain. Besides, there isn’t much to do all year round,” he says. What happens now that the Tatas have left for Gujarat? “I recently got married. I can’t possibly move to a different city now, even though we were training in Pune for some months. We will try to convince the Tatas to come back,” he smiles hopefully. What about Sanand? “Too many of us want the first Nano to come out of Singur. I should not be letting you in on this, but a few cars were nearly ready for the road. We are certain that Ratan Tata will hear our pleas.” But the factory in Sanand, I persist. “Yes, yes. It’s a big project. They can have more than one factory, surely?”

“See, you keep saying that the Tatas have left, but what proof is there of that?” asks Dudh Kumar Dhara a few hours later, while his band of followers nod their heads in accession. But hasn’t the announcement been made of the pull-out? What about operations in the Singur factory being completely shut for a long time now? What about Ratan Tata’s open plea for administrative help in shifting materials from the factory? “Ratan Tata is a politician, not an industrialist. If he has genuine intentions of taking the Nano elsewhere, then why hasn’t he cancelled his lease on the land? His last letter to the media putting the blame on Mamata Banerjee for the failure of the Nano plant was just a ploy to pump some oxygen into the Communist Party of India (Marxist). If he had been a responsible industrialist, he would never have built a factory despite the knowledge that it would mean taking away the livelihood of thousands of people.”

At the Beraberi bazaar, I meet a group of men playing cards. “People from Spain, China, Russia have come and gone, and you’re coming now?” an old man proudly scoffs. I ask him if he has land inside the factory site. “Of course, and I haven’t taken the compensation cheque either,” he declares. I look at his old, withered frame and wonder how much farm-work he can put in. “I have several buffaloes and cows and I need land for them to graze. I also need hay from the land, so that I can feed them.” Has he worked out the comparable financial logistics of selling milk to that of selling his land and living comfortably for the rest of his life? The money will be gone in no time, he is convinced — as are some of the others who have seen their neighbours, or heard of families in neighbouring villages, spend all the compensation money in building houses and marrying off their daughters, and who are allegedly bankrupt now. I suggest some careful investment in government and/or non-governmental bonds to prevent that. “Are you saying that after a lifetime of hard work I should sit at home and feed off bank interests?” the old man bellows. “Jomi amader Ma (The land is our mother),” says another, shaking his fist, “We have had this land for generations, we’ve been taught to worship it as we would a goddess. No government or businessman is going to make us part with it.”

My guide tells me about the people of his own village, Dobandi. Dobandi is arguably the poorest village in Singur block, and its inhabitants mostly belong to the scheduled castes and tribes. They are mainly unrecorded bargadars who farmed on land owned by others and got a share of the yield. The movement against land acquisition in Singur has been mobilized by such people, who have been hit the hardest. “The land-owners have sold their land and are reaping profits now. The bargadars who could show some documents of their share got 25 per cent of the compensation money. What do they care about our plight? I have no documents to show, my ancestors and my own generation used to farm on the land of my moneeb on trust. I am not educated, I have no other skills. Why should they give me a job at the factory? Farming is the only possible livelihood I could have had. Now that is gone. If someone kicks me in the belly and makes me starve, will I not protest?”

He takes me to the settlements outside the factory site, where the community of the displaced now reside. Dangerous cracks have formed on the walls of these brick huts, and there are gaps in the poorly thatched roofs. In one house, the members keep a rubber tyre, to use as a dinghy to ferry people in and out of the settlements during monsoon, when even moderate rains cause floods on the low, unpaved land. “Our house fell inside the factory walls, so the police came and tore it down in front of our eyes, and we were forced to move in here. We’re living six people to a room, three families to a hut, but they still won’t give us title deeds. My husband worked as a security guard at the plant for seven months, and he still hasn’t been paid,” rattles off a woman, almost as though she was used to repeating this. Not even for a single month? “No.”

“That’s impossible. All accounts were settled before the Tatas left. They have a reputation to maintain, don’t they?” says Rahman, who willingly sold his land and claims to have invested his money wisely enough to yield an interest of Rs 36,000 annually. Most people who gave up their lands have land elsewhere on which to farm, he says. Yes, he was a CPI(M) supporter, but he feels that he would have sold his land irrespective of party affiliation, and points me out to TMC supporters who willingly gave up their land and accepted compensation for it. “The issue worth protesting for is equal employment for all — why should only CPI(M) workers get jobs inside?” I ask if that has been happening. He won’t say. Instead, he mentions incidents of families who had wanted to sell when the new compensation package was announced, but were pleaded with and even threatened against it by local TMC leaders. “Mamata Banerjee herself gheraoed the block division officer’s chambers and prevented people from accepting cheques or selling their land.”

“In most families, the brothers take care of the farming and enjoy the yields, while the sisters are married off and get nothing. However, if the land is sold, then all claimants will demand equal share, and for a land that is part-owned by several members of the same family, this would mean each person gets a minuscule share, hardly enough to last a lifetime. This is why many don’t want to sell,” explains Bidyut, himself a sharecropper now training under the Tatas.

“Training?” laughs Dudh Kumar and his cronies outside the Khasherbheri clubhouse. “Those people used to enter the factory grounds all suited up to sweep floors inside,” he grins. An old man with a hefty stick strikes the ground with it in agreement. “We are not against industry,” he is quick to clarify. “Return the 400 acres of unused land that Didi has asked for, and everything can continue smoothly.” Shortly after, he declares to the gathered group that industries breed mafiosi. “Where does the money for the movement come from?” I ask. “I gave Rs 1.5 lakh to the movement to carry on its noble struggle,” says Mahadeb, another party-worker and unwilling landloser. “I was making Rs 20,000 a month from my land. I could have made as much as a lakh of rupees every month from it,” he says. “I have a brother who is a graduate, but he has not got a single job till date. I have only studied up to junior school, but my house is equipped with every modern amenity, all given by the land.” He is clearly the shining star of the group. I ask him if he’s lost all his land, and he nods, smiling ruefully. So how does he manage to keep house? “I have some grains stored from two years ago. I can afford the same lifestyle, that’s how bountiful my yield used to be.” His claims certainly were.

A doctor joins us. He is articulate, polite — and dramatic. “You look like you enjoy gardening,” he says. Too eager to see where this is headed, I agree. He proceeds to liken the agricultural process to watering a plant and watching it bloom. Another man accuses me of trivializing their struggle by asking too many unrelated questions, like why the present TMC-led panchayat has not been able to provide more than three days’ worth of employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, and why nothing has been done yet about the absence of toilets and about the lack of adequate tube wells in the villages. There is general agreement that factories shut down, jobs are lost, but land is forever yielding. Despite floods, bad crops, too many of the people of Singur have been led to believe that industry is something to be seen from afar, and one must not engage in its processes. Some also believe that the ruling party in the state employed its supporters to buy up land in Singur at low rates almost a decade ago because it had foreseen both the onset of industry in the area as well as the resultant land-price rise!

I left Singur, confused and saddened by the extent to which half-truths and baseless hypotheses were being circulated among the people by their political leaders. What I found raises questions about the dissemination of information and how it can affect the course of social movements. Any consensus reached by a mass of people based on distorted facts faces the danger of prompting uninformed, erroneous decisions. The crisis in Singur, as it stands now, reflects the decay in West Bengal’s political culture, one that may prove costly not only for economic progress in the state, but also for democracy as a whole. Things have only just begun.


Gautam said...

Rohini, thank you for sharing your experience. I share your sense of sadness and frustration. I don't understand why even the middle class share the same inclination of believing on hearsay.

I faced a similar situation in Hind Motor during the strike of Jun 2007. The workers who supported the strike refused to find for themselves what the realities were and decide there course of action. Eventually they suffered the most The company and the region will suffer long-term the effects of their action.