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Operation Singur

By Ritwik Mukherjee     July 17, 2007

Our private taxi slows down to a crawl behind a convoy of trucks, trailers and dumpers loaded with construction materials. We are on the four-lane Durgapur Expressway, still a few kilometres away from Singur where Tata Motors has begun construction of a new Rs 1,500-crore plant in which it will assemble its much-talked-about Rs 1-lakh car.

It takes us about 20 minutes to traverse the 5 km to the plant site. The area is humming with activity-diesel fumes, the whirring of motors and the sounds of construction fill the air. As my photographer colleague begins clicking, two armed policemen come running and take him to a make-shift police outpost. "Who are you? Who has sent you? Why do you need these photos? Do you have a written permission?" they demand to know. "We have clear instructions to question strangers before allowing them inside," an officer tells us. He, however, avoids a direct question on who the instructions have come from-the government or Tata Motors. A company executive intervenes and bails us out of our predicament.

There is frenetic activity all around. "Why isn't the road to the engine shop ready yet? I want this done as fast as possible and no excuses," we hear a project manager shouting to a contractor. "We want to complete the piling and plinth work before the monsoon sets in," explains a Tata Motors spokesman at the site, as we step aside to let a small convoy of dumpers drive past. These vehicles, loaded with sand, cement, bricks and stone chips, raise a small cloud of dust in their wake.

Work is on in full swing at the Engine Shop, the tcf Shop (assembly line), the Paint and Press Shop and the Belt Shop. About 65 per cent of the piling works is already done, adds the spokesman. It's difficult to believe that the ground we're standing on was a potato field barely three months ago. "If you come again three months later, you won't be able to recognise this place," says an engineer from Shapoorji Pallonji & Co, which is building the plant. He slinks away quietly on learning that we're journalists.

Interestingly, the Krishi Jami Bachao Committee (KJBC), which is spearheading the agitation against the project, has not tried to disrupt the work during this time. "They come on pre-announced days and cause some damage to our boundary walls; that's all," adds the spokesman. It's also difficult to imagine that this place was a battleground only a few months ago. As we walk around the site, we are joined by some locals from the neighbouring Beraberi and Bajemelia villages. All of them have voluntarily given up their land for the project and are now employed in various capacities on the construction site.

Says Joydeb Malik, the leader of the group: "We are looking forward to a bright future. We're getting jobs. Our women are receiving training and financial help to start off on their own. They (Tata Motors) are taking our children to Jamshedpur and Pune for special training before they are absorbed." What about the agitation? Pat comes the reply: "Why should we side with people who're creating trouble and, at the same time, also minting money by supplying sand, bricks, stone-chips and cement for this project?"

4.45 pm: The mood is dramatically different at the Trinamool Congress office, which also doubles up as the local camp office of the KJBC, in front of the Singur Police Station. Says a gloomy-looking Becharam Manna, leader of the local chapter of KJBC: "We don't want any compensation package; we only want our land back." Mahadeb Das, a farmer from Khaserbheri village, who owns 3.5 acres of land within the 937 acre factory site, nods in agreement.

"Our land is like our mother," he says. There are still 3,500 farmers, agricultural labourers and bargadars (share croppers), owning abut 350 acres of land, who're holding out. Rabindranath Bhattacharya, the Trinamool Congress MLA, walks in at this time. "People who have voluntarily sold their land were either absentee landlords or share croppers with alternative sources of income," he says, explaining why so many farmers are still holding out. "We are fighting this case socially, politically and legally. And we will fight till the end, come what may," he adds.

Brave words, but the look of resignation on his face and those of his followers explains the waning tempo of the agitation. And therein lies a tale. Despite the bloodletting at Nandigram, a few hundred kilometres from Singur, and the consequent bad press, the Tata Motors project at Singur may yet enable West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to win his battle to re-industrialise his state.

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