Singurs loss

Print edition : November 07, 2008

Ratan Tata at the October 3 press conference, announcing the pullout.-SUSHANTA PATRANOBISH

The Nano project is out of the State, and Mamata Banerjees political adventurism will now face its litmus test in the Lok Sabha polls.

THE denouement to the Singur imbroglio was all too sudden. Although it was not totally unexpected, the Tatas announcement of the decision to pull out the Nano project from West Bengal stunned everybody and left none in the State a victor.

On October 3, Ratan N. Tata, chairman, Tata Sons & Tata Motors, accompanied by Ravi Kant, managing director of Tata Motors, conveyed to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee that in the interest of the projects success and viability and in the light of the Trinamool Congress-led oppositions continued agitation, the Tatas were left with no option but to move the project out of the State. What was a major loss for West Bengal ended up being a gain for Gujarat as the Tatas decided to shift the main factory, along with the three-tier ancillaries, to Sanand near Ahmedabad.

Addressing a press conference to break the news soon after his meeting with the Chief Minister, Ratan Tata said, Through these two years we have faced enormous destruction, and assault and intimidation to our employees. Taking all things into account, mainly the well-being of our employees, the security of our contractors and, in fact, of our vendors also, we have taken the very regretful decision to move the Nano project out of West Bengal.

He reiterated that the great agitation and great aggression on the part of the opposition parties, led by Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee, was the sole reason for Tata Motors to take the decision. I once mentioned that if somebody puts a gun to my head, you either pull the trigger or take the gun away because I will not move my head. I think Ms. Banerjee has pulled the trigger, he said.

Right from the inception of the project in 2006, the Trinamool Congress-led Krishi Jami Jiban Jibika Rakshya (Protection of farmland, life and livelihood) Committee (KJJJRC) a group of reluctant land losers, naxalite elements, Islamic fundamentalists, and other smaller parties carried on a violent agitation in Singur, which culminated in a siege outside the plant site from August 24 to September 8, practically forcing Tata Motors to suspend work for over a month. Of the 13,000 farmers who were affected by the project, around 2,200 refused to collect their compensation cheques and, led by Mamata Banerjee, persisted in their demand for the return of their land, using violence and intimidation to get their way. Ratan Tata said, You cannot run a plant where the wall is being broken; you cannot run a plant where bombs are being thrown from all the sides; you cannot run a plant where the people have been intimidated or threatened. This is only during the construction, what happens when we actually start running the plant!

The only rational explanation for Mamata Banerjees behaviour can be her belief that through such destructive and negative manoeuvres she has projected herself as a saviour of the rural masses from the perils of land acquisition for private industries, even if that entails losing her base among the urban middle classes.

Mamata Banerjee reacted aggressively to Ratan Tatas announcement: That is the Tatas own affair. We never asked them to leave. We just wanted 300 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] to be returned to the reluctant farmers from the project site. She might have been trying to conceal the fact that she was taken unawares: all along, she had seemed sure that the Tatas would not withdraw given the investment they had already made (Rs.1,500 crore). In the event, the 2,200-odd reluctant land losers who carried out the agitation under her leadership have been left in the lurch with the projects departure. What is worse, they have dragged down with them 11,000 others who had pinned their hopes for a better future on the project and had given up their land for it.

Mamata Banerjee tried to present the withdrawal as a political plot hatched by the Tatas and the State government to isolate her. It is a joint game plan of the Tatas and the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] a joint venture to relocate the Nano project from Singur. The government called in Tatababu [sic] to play their advocate, she said.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee before his meeting with Ratan Tata on October 3.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

On September 7, after two rounds of talks between Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee, presided over by Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, an understanding was arrived at, lifting hopes that the stalemate would end. It was agreed that maximum land within the project site would be returned to the farmers who had not taken any compensation for their plots and a committee would be set up to determine the modalities. Mamata Banerjee agreed to suspend the indefinite agitation, begun on August 24 outside the plant site. The matter seemed all but settled until the next day when Tata Motors expressed dissatisfaction at the limited clarity of the agreement and found it unacceptable that 200-300 acres from within the project site would have to be returned to farmers and that the vendors park would have to be relocated, as demanded by Mamata Banerjee. In a statement, Tata Motors said that it would continue with its suspension of work given the prevailing situation and insisted that the integrated nature of the project comprising the mother plant and the vendor park would have to be maintained.

Mamata Banerjee, however, stuck to her guns, saying that 300 acres from within the project site would have to be returned under the agreement, which she claimed was signed by the Chief Minister in the Governors presence. But the Governors statement following the meeting gave no indication of the quantum of land to be returned; it said only that maximum land would be returned from within the project site.

The term maximum, used by the Governor, also confused matters. It provided enormous scope for conflicting interpretations, and the Trinamool leader made full use of this. The government has said it will give maximum land to the unwilling farmers from the project area and the rest from the area adjacent to it. It cannot back out of the agreement, she said. The Chief Minister subsequently made it clear that it was not possible for his government to provide more than 70 acres from inside the project site if the integral nature of the auto-cluster were to be maintained. This had been agreed upon at the time of the meeting, and at no point during the meeting had the State government agreed to return 300 acres, he emphasised.

Mamata Banerjee after submitting a memorandum to President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 14, requesting her to resolve the Singur issue. With her are Samajwadi Party leaders Amar Singh and Jayaprada, among others.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The rehabilitation package that the State government proposed for the project-affected people in Singur was as follows.

Apart from 70 acres from within the project site, the government offered cash assistance to the land losers/bargadars (excluding factory and debottar plots) so that they could buy agricultural land of their choice if they so desired. The benefit included 50 per cent of the land price determined by the LA (land acquisition) Collector at the time of the acquisition. The affected agricultural labourers and unrecorded bargadars would receive 300 days wages each at the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) rate, subject to verification of their resident status.

All those who had not received the compensation money would be entitled to a sum equivalent to 10 per cent of the award in their respective names if they accepted the compensation by September 22 (the cut-off date was extended several times after that). The State government would also arrange training schemes for affected persons and endeavour to provide direct or indirect employment for one person from every project-affected family with no regular income. Community development schemes would be taken up in the project-affected villages. The package would be implemented after the unwilling land losers accepted their cheques. However, only around 70 of them accepted the payment.

The State governments proposal was unacceptable to Mamata Banerjee, and on September 21 she threatened to resume her agitation outside the plant site if the government did not operationalise what she claimed was the agreement reached on September 7. The following night, some 10 people scaled the boundary wall of the project site and attacked two security guards with iron rods, sticks and sickles. While one of them received minor injuries, the other had to be admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital. According to reports, when the miscreants were challenged by the guards to produce their identity cards, they fell upon them saying, Our land is lost and you are here acting as Tatas agents!

The term Tatas agents, as popularised by Mamata Banerjee, had become practically a catchword in Singur. Everyone who did not share her view on the issue, starting from the State government to sections of the media to intellectuals who criticised her, were branded as Tatas agents. Though Becharam Manna, the convener of the KJJJRC, denied the involvement of members of his organisation in the incident at the project site, it would hardly require any great power of deduction to know who were behind the attack.

It was the second time in less than two months that Trinamool supporters entered the project area and targeted employees. On July 29, Manish Khatua, a civil engineer, was severely beaten by a group of alleged KJJJRC supporters when he tried to prevent them from stealing iron rods from the plant site. The latest incident once more brought to fore the hollowness of Mamata Banerjees oft-repeated statement that she was not against the project but that she wanted industry and agriculture to exist side by side. Given that the Tata Motors and the ancillary units officially suspended work at the project site on September 2, and the contractors working on constructions at the site were in the process of taking out their equipment, the attack could only be construed as hammering in the final nail in the coffin of the project.

Although Mamata Banerjee has proposed to continue the agitation for the return of the 300 acres to the unwilling land losers, it is not difficult to gauge that neither the State government nor the ruling party has any urgency in the matter anymore. In fact, an informed source in the State government told Frontline that the compensation awarded to these unwilling land losers was lying waiting to be collected by them.

The legal problem in returning the land to the unwilling land losers remains unresolved. Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that land once acquired through the Land Acquisition Act, after possession is taken on payment of compensation, vests with the government, free from all encumbrances. If there is any surplus land not required by the State government for the public purpose for which it was acquired, the said land cannot be returned to the erstwhile landowners but may be used for another public purpose or resold in a public auction and the proceeds used for some other public purpose. The Land Acquisition Manual on which Mamata Banerjee and her followers were pinning their hopes, since it provided for the return of the surplus land to the land losers, is only a set of executive instructions, which cannot override a Supreme Court ruling.

The TATA Plant at Singur on October 4, when local residents observed a bandh in protest against the Tatas'decision to pull out the project from the State.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

It needs repeating that the entire land acquisition process in Singur was challenged in the Calcutta High Court and a detailed judgment upheld the the acquisition for a public purpose. Incidentally, some legal luminaries pointed out to Frontline that if the concept of unwilling land losers was accepted by the State government, it would not only make a mockery of the Land Acquisition Act but, when extended, could create anomalies in the judicial process even in other cases. For example, can an errant motorist claim immunity after violating traffic instruction on the grounds that he was unwilling to do so?

In fact, not only the Land Acquisition Act, but any Act is meant to bring in line recalcitrant individuals defying a law, be it transport regulation, or land acquisition or prevention of crime, a legal source told Frontline, explaining further that if only willing land donors could serve the purpose, there would be no need for a Land Acquisition Act.

Mamata Banerjees so-called victory has dealt Brand Bengal a blow that will take a long time to heal. The remarks of the United States Consul General in Kolkata, Beth A. Payne, days before the formal withdrawal of the project, was ominous: The U.S. India Business Councils (USIBC) trade mission would have introduced many other American companies to West Bengal for the first time. Unfortunately, these companies asked, if Ratan Tata cannot succeed in West Bengal, then how can an American investor hope to succeed there, and decided to bypass West Bengal for the time being. She said this at a recent interactive session with the Confederation of Indian Industry in Kolkata.

A disappointed Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said, A battle has been lost, but not the war. Despite the setback in Singur, we must move on, particularly for the sake of the young people, just out of colleges, who want industrialisation in the State.

A leading Bengali newspaper carried two separate open letters sent by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi addressed to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee. He advised them to forget their political differences in the greater interest of the State. To Mamata Banerjee, whom he addressed as a younger sister, he wrote, You should not try to combat Left forces with the help of ultra-Left forces. She should rather select the right-wing forces, he said.

In the final analysis, the test of the pudding lies in the eating. Mamata Banerjees experiments in adventurism will face a litmus test in the Lok Sabha elections. The Trinamool Congress under her leadership could win only one seat, her own, in the last general elections, which the Left Front swept, riding the wave of optimism over an industrially resurgent Bengal. Now it is to be seen how far Mamata Banerjee will be able to turn the tide and reverse it in her favour by moving in the opposite direction.

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