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On rough terrain

Even as the world waits expectantly for the Nano, farmers who sold their land for the project now want it back. Will the world’s cheapest car be late coming?

Suman Layak | Print Edition: August 24, 2008

For Tata Motors, the battle for the Land Rover may have been easier than the battle for land unfolding at Singur, West Bengal. On Sunday, August 3, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee announced that she would personally lead a dharna that will encircle the upcoming factory of the company for the Nano from August 24, and create a barricade to prevent employees and transporters bringing supplies from working with the company at the site. Her demand: Return 400 acres of land enclosed within the walls and distribute it among farmers who did not want to give up their land in the first place.

Landlocked: The Tata Motors’ factory site at Singur
Landlocked: The Tata Motors’ factory site at Singur
The agitation is enough to shake the confidence of the company that is trying to get the factory ready and the cars rolling out between October and December 2008.

Even as the world waits expectantly for the world’s cheapest car to roll out, protestors were busy roughing up an engineer, setting off bombs close to the factory, breaking down walls of the factory and threatening transporters. To make the Nano a success out of Singur, it’s evident that the West Bengal government needs to strike a deal with the farmers who lost their land or livelihood to the project.

The state government had taken over around a little under 1,000 acres for the Nano project. While owners of around 650 acres accepted the compensations, other owners, farm labourers and tenants are holding out. A Tata Motors spokesperson says the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) has leased to Tata Motors about 645 acres to set up its own plant, including utilities, inter-connecting roads within and approaches to vendors in an adjacent vendor park. The capacity of the plant is 250,000 units a year, expandable to 350,000. The WBIDC has earmarked about 290 acres, adjacent to the Tata Motors plant, for the vendor park. Vendors are directly leasing area, as per their requirement within the 290-acre area, from the WBIDC to set up their respective plants. Swraj Paul’s Caparo, among others, has already committed to build an ancillary unit here.

Around the time of writing, Nirupam Sen, the state’s Minister for Commerce and Industries, had made a few conciliatory noises. He invited the opposition for talks and said compensation for the land losers may be increased. Sources indicated that the government is even considering a proposal to offer land or shops to farmers who have lost their livelihood due to the takeover of the land and are still not accepting the compensation cheques. Land owners who also own other plots in the area are still being cajoled to accept the compensation.

Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, the Trinamool Congress MLA from Singur, is also President of the Krishi Jomi Raksha Committee (Agricultural Land Protection Committee). A retired assistant headmaster who drifted into politics four years after retiring in 1997, Bhattacharjee was elected as MLA in 2006. “We are ready to talk to the government provided that land is on the agenda. We do not want to talk about a 15 per cent increase in compensation. They must provide land to the people who lost land; whether they return the land or buy land somewhere else, we are ready to discuss that,” says Bhattacharjee, who doesn’t own a mobile phone.

Tata Motors is adamant that the land allotted for the project cannot be returned. The protestors have demanded that while the land on which the factory is being built may be used by Tata, the remaining land earmarked for the vendor park should be given back. Says a Tata Motors spokesperson: “The location of the vendor park, next to the plant, is essential for ‘just-in-time’ inventory management, which in turn is one of the key factors why the Nano can be so affordably priced.” The good news for the Tatas is that both the government and the protestors are making noises about negotiations. A senior Trinamool Congress leader, Sougata Roy, told BT: ‘If the state government had come up with some concrete proposals about giving land, we could have looked at the proposals. Right now it’s only kite-flying.”

Mamata Banerjee has a lot going for her right now. Thanks to the agitations of Singur and Nandigram, where she lent her full support, she managed to break the stranglehold of the CPI(M) over left-leaning political thinking. She was also successful at the Panchayat elections.

However, with an eye on the next assembly elections, Banerjee may not want to alienate industrial lobbies by being remembered as the politician who drove Tata Motors and the Nano out of West Bengal. It will also be difficult for the Tatas to walk away, given their other investments in the state (The Tatas have many investments in the state: among them are Tata Steel’s marketing headoffice and headquarters of Tata Tea, Tata Metaliks and Tata Ryerson. Hooghly Met Coke and Power is a new investment.

TCS has one of its oldest campuses in Kolkata, Tata Chemicals has a factory in Haldia and Tata’s water company Jusco has taken up water supply in Haldia). Ravi Kant, Managing Director, Tata Motors, says his company will stay with the project as long as “our patience lasts.” It seems right now the company has to be patient for some time more.

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