Singur farmers, frustrated by lack of cultivable land and factory jobs, may punish Mamata Banerjee at polls

Singur farmers, frustrated by lack of cultivable land and factory jobs, may punish Mamata Banerjee at polls

Singur farmers, frustrated by lack of cultivable land and factory jobs, may punish Mamata Banerjee at polls

SINGUR: AGRARIAN MOVEMENT GONE WRONG

By Umesh Kumar Ray

Rice was being sown in one bigha of land in Singur for the first time in 13 years. The land belonged to Debprasad Das, who had brought workers from nearby Srirampur to see if the barren land could be farmed again. “I do not know if the plants will bring rice or not as there has been no cultivation since 2006,” said Debprasad. “Before that, I sowed rice in this field for almost 13 years”.

It is sowing season in Bengal, when farms turn green with new born shoots. But not in Singur, the chunk of farmland adjacent to the Durgapur Expressway, connecting the area to the industrial belt of Shilpanchal. It was land bought by Tata Motors to set up a factory to make its rupee one lakh car, the Nano. It was the land that in 2011 enabled Mamata Bannerji and her Trinamool Congress to rout the left front which had ruled the state for more than three decades. And retain power in 2016.

Now, as voting day for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls nears, Singur’s farmers are being wooed once again. Singur falls under Hooghly Lok Sabha seat which Trinamool Congress MP Dr. Ratna De has represented since 2009 and has got the party ticket again this time.

During the 2016 assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee reminded the farmers that she had largely kept her promise to give Singur farmers back their land. At that time, sensing the unhappiness among Singur’s farmers, CPI (M) State Secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra had said in a public meeting: “It is only we who can again set up industry at Singur.”

The dissatisfaction of Singur’s farmers with the Trinamool Congress is evident from the voting pattern in the last two assembly elections. The dissatisfaction is largely because of the farmers’ inability to cultivate their fields. A sentiment that the BJP candidate Locket Chatterjee, a former actress and CPI(M) candidate Pradip Saha hope to exploit, both parties having increased their vote share in 2016 as compared to 2011.

Today, the barren land is strewn with chunks of concrete, stone and bricks, with concrete pillars sticking out of the surface. The farmers who had sold their land and those who had not and whose protests against the forcible acquisition of their land turned into a pivotal movement in the state’s politics, have got much of their land back.

But not in a fully cultivable condition, as Mamata Bannerji had promised. Scientists at the Bidhan Chandra Roy Agricultural University opine that much of the land will not be cultivable as they are filled with cement and sand. In their view, more than seven inches of top soil would have to be removed to make the land cultivable.

But the farmers are in no position to bear the cost of making their land cultivable. Removing the concrete and other construction debris from their land would cost a few thousand rupees. So some of them earn a living by breaking up the concrete slabs to recover and sell the iron rods embedded in them.

About debris removal, government officials said a few hundred acres was cleared under MNREGA. But chunks of concrete and stones are still strewn all around. “There were huge concrete structures, rods and other things,” said Debprasad, who had given 2.75 Bigha land for the Nano project but got back only two bighas three years back. “I had to spend Rs 20,000 to remove the concrete, but from only one Bigha. Rest is lying barren. It is very difficult to run the family on agriculture. That is why I had given the land for the factory. If it had come up our children would get jobs.”

Debprasad Das is among the very few land owners who managed to remove the debris. Most others have left the land barren. Like Bimal Maity, 65, of Gopalnagar gram panchayat. He got back his 22 kottah land which had been acquired, but is not cultivating it.

“I had participated in the movement against land acquisition.” Said Bimal Maity. “But what have we got in return? The factory is gone and the land we got back is full of debris.” Maiti and other farmers like him have now come around a full circle. “If the government starts an industry here, we will give our land,” said Maiti.

The irony is not lost on the farmers. In 2006, the left front government under Budhhadeb Bhattacharya acquired 997 acre of land from 11,000 farmers of Gopalnagar, Beraberi, Khaserbheri, Bajemelia and Sahanapara, for the Nano car factory and the Tatas started construction in 2008. Around 6000 farmers had willingly sold their land at Rs.14000 per kottah, but many others refused which led to the acquisition of their land.

And the protests which Mamata Banerji, who had just launched her party and was looking for an issue to galvanise party workers and voters, latched on to. Mamata landed in Singur, vowed to return the land to the farmers if voted to power, and went on a fast unto death to press her demands, which forced the Tatas to move the Nano project to Gujarat, while still retaining ownership of the land.

Mamata’s tactics won her a landslide victory in the 2011 assembly elections. She passed the Land Rehabilitation and Development Act on June 22,2012, which empowered the state government to take possession of the 997 acre land from the Tatas. The Supreme Court rejected the Tata appeal and ordered the land be returned to farmers within two weeks. Mamata Banerjee termed the order as a victory for farmers and started the process of land distribution.

For farmers who had not taken the compensation amount, the government is giving 16 kilogram rice at Rs.2/kg and Rs.2000 per month. According to government officials, 4000 families are getting food grains and cash under this scheme. (Those who had given land willingly are getting nothing.)

When we arrived in Singur around 10 am, we saw only a few people out in the fields. All the farmers we spoke to refused to give their names. Though they all echoed the sentiments of Debprasad and Bimal Maity. That the factory would have been better as there is no profit in agriculture and employment opportunities are shrinking because old factories are closing down.

We found 48-year-old Mohsin, a landless labourer, in a field, breaking concrete slabs with a hammer to get the iron rods. He cycles in daily at 7 am from Ratanpur around 10 kilometers away. “I work 7-8 hours and collect 6 to 7 kilograms of rods,” said Mohsin. “This fetches Rs.200-250. Other days I collect plastic items from homes and sell them. It is difficult to run the family on a monthly income of Rs. 5000-6000. If the factory had come up, we would have job opportunities.”

Senior CPI (M) leader and chief of the All India Kisan Sabha, Hannan Molla recently led a farmers rally in Kolkata in which many farmers from Singur participated. They came to press their demand that either government give them land in cultivable condition or establish a factory there. “In 2006-2007 farmers could not predict the consequences of their protest,” said Hannan Molla. “We are now reaching out them to tell them that we were on the right track then.”

BJP’s Locket Chatterjee too is using the same argument while campaigning in Singur. "TMC used farmers to come to power in but gave nothing to them,” she said. Her promise to the farmers: “I will raise farmers issue in parliament and ensure a factory in Singur”.

TMC MLA and a prominent face of the agrarian movement in Singur Becharam Manna and TMC MP from Hooghly Dr. Ratna De did not respond to our calls. But the Singur farmers’ refusal to answer whom they will vote for is probably not good news for the TMC.

(EOM)


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