Amid Trinmool-BJP clash in the Hooghly belt, Left revives former CM’s slogan, pushing for development.
A pile of drain pipes surrounded by farmlands reaping a good potato harvest is all that remains on the 997-acre plot in Singur where the Tata Motors’ Nano factory once stood.
It is almost impossible to locate the site of the factory whose structure was demolished by controlled explosions after the Supreme Court verdict in 2016. The verdict overruled the land acquisition by the Left Front government and in September 2016, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee returned the land to the farmers, with a symbolic sowing of mustard seeds.
Five years later, with the promise of industry on the lips of all political parties fighting the Assembly elections, including the Trinamool Congress, life in Singur has turned full circle. People residing in no other constituency in West Bengal has seen so many cycles as Singur has in the past 15 years, oscillating between agriculture and industry, hope and despair, resistance and triumph.
Weeks before Singur goes to the polls on April 10, farmers are busy filling ubiquitous pink sacks with the harvested potato crop on the erstwhile factory site. Each sack containing 50 kilos of the tuber will earn them anything between ₹280 and ₹330.
For 75-year-old farmer Bharatchandra Das, who resisted the acquisition and could not farm for 14 years till 2020, the elections mean little. “We have been used for politics,” he said.
Mr. Das and other farmers have invested thousands of rupees to make their land tillable because of the concrete and mortar in the soil and need more money. Several plots are yet to be levelled or cleared of wild plants.
In Bengal, landholding is typically small, and the plots on the factory site have title and mapping issues.
There is also disquiet among the people of Singur after 89-year-old Trinamool veteran Rabindranath Bhattacharya, one of the most respected and credible leaders of the fight against land acquisition, moved to the BJP.
Mastermoshai (teacher), as he is fondly called, was ready to retire but is now contesting against the party that elected him to the State Assembly for four consecutive terms. Pitching for industry, he said, “The land movement was not against industry but against land grab by force. If voted to power I will push for industry on 650 acres of the Tata site.”
When the Trinamool Congress fielded Becharam Manna, another prominent face of the Singur agitation, a miffed Mastermoshai joined the BJP which promptly nominated him from Singur. However, the decision led to protests as BJP workers were upset that a senior Trinamool leader had been favoured instead of a party worker.
Battling inner-party squabbles, the BJP’s campaign is yet to pick up. Mastermoshai said the voters “are socially and politically aware” and that he would get their blessings for a fifth term.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had a lead of over 10,000 votes in this Assembly segment but with weeks left for polling day, the party has a muted presence. Posters of Becharam Manna along with TMC flags are at every nook and corner.
“Becharam Manna despite his flaws is a very good organiser,” admitted a local.
Across the divide
The exit of Tata Motors from West Bengal in 2008 gave the perception that the political climate in the State was not conducive for industrial growth.
Close to the end of her ten-year regime, the Chief Minister announced an agro-industrial park at Singur on about 30 acres of land that was acquired for the small car project. With this announcement, the Trinamool Congress, which was catapulted to power in 2011 after the movement against forcible, land acquisition, has also taken a pro-industry turn.
The Left, Congress, ISF-led Samyukta Morcha has fielded young SFI leader Srijan Bhattacharya at Singur. Launching his campaign, Mr Bhattacharya revived former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s slogan, “Krishi amader bhitti, shilpo amader bhobishoyt. (Agriculture is our foundation, industry our future)”.
Touring the constituency on a motorbike along with supporters, the 27-year-old greeted and waved to people. The strong political divide has blurred with the young CPI(M) candidate reaching out to Manoranjan Malik, seeking his support. Mr. Malik’s daughter, Tapasi, was brutally killed during the violent agitation in December 2006 and two Left members were indicted for the incident.
“In Singur it was never about agriculture versus industry; it was about industry that can be built on the success of agriculture. When the Left government launched a pilot project at Singur post the 2006 Assembly election victory, the intention was right but not the implementation,” Mr. Bhattacharya said. Land for industry “will have to be acquired in consensus with farmers,” he added.
Farmers harped on that lack of consensus.
“First, CPI(M) cadres threatened us and then the police beat us and locked us up,” said Bharatchandra Das.
In 14 years, not only has the site of the Tata Motors small car factory changed, so have the hopes and aspirations of the people. “We don’t want divisive politics anymore,” a farmer said, echoing many voices in Singur.