Singur: Thirteen years after a farmers’ stir put Singur on India’s political map, having forced the exit of Tata‘s Nano car project, industrialisation has emerged as the main poll plank in this constituency as the land, for which swords were crossed, has been rendered infertile.
Battle lines have been redrawn in Singur, a place that along with Nandigram shook the foundations of the mighty 34-year-old Left Front regime and propelled Mamata Banerjee to power in 2011, with TMC‘s sitting MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya – a front-runner of the anti-land acquisition protest – shifting his allegiance to the BJP.
The ruling camp has field Bhattacharya’s former associate, Becharam Manna, from the seat.
Farmers, who had been handed over the land parcels that were initially acquired for the Tata project, now depend on government doles and petty jobs to make ends meet. Many of them feel betrayed as the TMC government failed to keep its promise of turning their arid plots cultivable.
Ironically, both the TMC and the BJP have promised industrialisation in Singur this election, having got a whiff of local sentiments, with ‘Master Moshai’ (the teacher) — as 89-year-old Bhattacharya is commonly referred to — and TMC candidate Manna crossing swords in the area over the issue.
The CPI (M)’s young turk, Srijan Bhattacharya, however, hopes that he would have the last laugh in the agrarian constituency, where his party desperately seeks to recover its lost ground.
Rabindranath Bhattacharya, once the eyes and ears of Mamata Banerjee’s Singur movement, told PTI, “We were never against industry; we were against forcible land acquisition.
Somehow, things went out of control. The people here now want industry. If the BJP comes to power, we will work to bring investments in the area.”
Manna, who is trying his best to keep the TMC flag flying in the constituency, said agro-based industries are best suited for the place. “A few agro-based industries have already come up in Singur. The TMC dispensation had been putting in efforts to make this area a major hub of agro-industries in the near future,” he claimed.
Srijan, the 28-year-old firebrand student leader, mocked both Bhattacharya and Manna over their assertions and said the TMC and the BJP are only repeating what the Left Front had said 15 years ago.
“Both of them are shedding crocodile tears, having sensed the mood of the people. We had missed the bus back then. Only the Left, however, can change things for better,” the SFI state secretary said.
Singur — once known for multiple crop farming – hogged the limelight after Tata Motors set its sight on the area to build its cheapest car manufacturing unit, Nano, in 2006. The Left Front government had acquired 997.11 acres along National Highway 2 and handed it over to the company.
Leading from the front, the then opposition leader and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee had called for a 26-day hunger strike, demanding the return of 347 acres that were apparently forcibly acquired.
The TMC, which had a strong support base in the area with Bhattacharya as the sitting MLA, spearheaded a mass movement against the alleged acquisition.
Despite numerous meetings and consultations between the TMC and the Left Front government, no solution was reached, and Tatas eventually moved out of Singur and built its plant in Gujarat’s Sanand. Land acquired for the project was subsequently returned to locals in 2016.
The Mamata Banerjee government, over the last few years, however, failed to turn the barren tracts fertile as it involvea huge expenditure, and many farmers ended up selling their plots.
According to agricultural experts, with concrete pillars and cement slabs embedded in the land, at least seven to eight inches of topsoil will have to be removed to make the plots in Singur cultivable.
The TMC dispensation, even after hosting various business summits, could not bag any investment for the constituency that had given the party the political heft to rise to power.
Over the years, the Singur movement might have found a place in school textbooks, but the residents here continue to stare at a bleak future.
“What did we get out of this agitation? Nothing… Now we feel it was all a mistake. We have no work, and our land has turned infertile. We are living in abject poverty,” Biren Mondal, who got back his 60 Kottah of land in 2016, rued.
The TMC, post its electoral reverses in the segment in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, took up the job of restoring the land; but large swathes still remain unproductive.
“Even in the tracts that has been restored, crop production is not up to the mark, unlike what was the case two decades ago,” said Mahadeb Das, a farmer who, too, was part of the movement.
In villages of Gopalnagar, Khaserbheri, Beraberi, where huge tracts were acquired for the car project, at least 3,000 farmers and sharecroppers now thrive on Rs 2,000 cash and 16 kg rice provided by the TMC government, and most men in their families have moved out of Bengal in search of jobs.
Gopal Das, who had willingly given up his land for the Tata project and had even got his sons trained for jobs in the Nano plant’s ancillary units, curse the Singur movement.
“After the Tata group left, my sons found no job for two years. I used to run a tea stall… Now they work at a car plant in Gurgaon. Had the locals and politicians not stopped the company from setting up the car manufacturing plant, a lot would have changed in Singur. Our children would have been living here, with us,” he said.
Riding on this resentment, the BJP made deep inroads in the area in 2019 by wresting the Hooghly Lok Sabha seat from the ruling TMC — which experienced a significant dip in its vote share.
Singur, one of the keenly watched seats this assembly elections, has 2,46,726 voters. The constituency is set to go to polls on April 10.