If you cannot break them, buy them. This simple tenet has been followed by the Trinamool Congress – besieged from the very beginning of its turbulent rule in the State by scams and scandals involving crores of rupees – in Singur, the small village town in southern West Bengal that acted as the first lever that catapulted the TMC to power after 34 years of a seemingly unending Left Front regime.
Singur, as we know, was what shot Mamata Banerjee to fame as a leader of the peasants and the toiling masses. Prior to Singur, she was merely a somewhat rowdy, undeniably over-the-top, popular to an extent, opposition leader, but a leader who was avowedly anti-left, a rightwing firebrand who could not evoke much sympathy either from the left minded intelligentsia of Bengal or from the rural poor, who were indebted to the Left Front for even the little land reform that they had spearheaded, and the little land that was distributed amongst the landless. The rural poor sided with the Left Front through the years of its growing authoritarianism and infatuation with neo–liberal policies. The rural poor were afraid that if the Right came to power in the State, the landlords (Jotdars – Zamindars) of yore would return with renewed vengeance and rob them off the very roof over their heads.
But Singur changed all that. The idea that Ms Mamata Banerjee was a hardcore Right-winger became an antiquated notion. She emerged as the true Left, as opposed to the CPIM’s pseudo-Left. While the Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya led Left Front government ordered the acquisition of 997 acres (4.03 Km2) of extremely fertile, multi-crop land in Singur as a magnanimous gift to the Tatas to set up their much-publicized Nano factory, turning a deaf ear to the protests of peasants, Mamata Banerjee rushed to the defense of the farmers and the farmland. She remained at the forefront of the glorious people versus government battle that ensued and it was chiefly due to her and her party’s all-out aggressiveness on the question that the Tatas had to pull out of Singur and four years later the Left Front had to face the most inglorious wipe out of its political career.
The facts of Singur were like this –
- 997 acres of land were to be acquired from 13,000 farmers,
- Nearly 11,000 farmers owning nearly 600 acres of land received compensation Rs 3 lakh for each acre holding and were termed ‘willing farmers’, that is farmers willing to give up their land in exchange of the compensation offered by the government.
- Nearly 2000 farmers owning nearly 400acres of land in the earmarked area, refused to accept the compensations and were termed ‘unwilling farmers’
Singur Land Act and litigation
Mamata Banerjee who was siding with these 2000 ‘unwilling farmers’ swept to power in May 2011, and on June 14 her government passed the historic Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 (Singur Act), which empowered the state government to regain 400 acres of land out of the 997 acres given to Tata Motors by the erstwhile Left Front government.
Tata Motors challenged the constitutionality of the Singur Act in Calcutta High Court, which on September 28 of the same year upheld the law as “constitutional and valid”, and asked the government to compensate Tata Motors as per the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 and ensure smooth transfer of land back to the farmers.
Tata Motors then appealed to a division bench and the bench of Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghosh and Mrinal Kanti Chaudhury on June 22, 2012 set aside the earlier order of Justice I P Mukherjee and struck down the Singur Act terming it “unconstitutional and void” and also found some sections of the Act in conflict with the Central Land Acquisition Act, 1894. The bench, however, stayed the implementation of the order for two months to allow the aggrieved party to appeal before a higher court.
The State of West Bengal then appealed against the judgment of the division bench in Supreme Court, which on August 24, 2012 stayed it. The matter is still in the Supreme Court.
Discontent and dole
There were rumbles of discontent which the wily Ms Banerjee was quick to detect and quicker to quell. She would certainly not allow mass movement during her tenure if she could help it. Nor would she take on the might of the State and say, “Damn the Court order. Go and seize your land, my government is with you”. So what could she do? She could silence the growing protests with money. And how? That is what the WSS fact-finding team witnessed in Singur.
In May 2012, on the first anniversary of her government, the chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared Rs 1000/- per month compensation and after loosing the case, on July 16 of the same year, ordered 16 Kg of rice to be given at Rs 2/- per Kg to every shareholder of land belonging to an ‘unwilling farmer’. The monthly allowance too was doubled to Rs 2,000/- on June 27, 2012 on grounds of price rise.
Since then 3,569 beneficiaries that include 2,200 shareholders of farmland that belonged to ‘unwilling farmers’ and sharecroppers and agricultural labourers of the same land, are receiving this dole every month. The debt-stressed government has doled out nearly Rs 100/- crores in cash grant, value of food grain that the government procures at Rs 25/- a Kg.
Facts from Manik Das
Manik das, now Zila Parishad Member (Trinamool Congress), is one of the 2200 “unwilling farmers”. His wife Taposi used to be a very spirited woman. His family, including other brothers and their wives was in the forefront of the struggle against land acquisition during the time of Left Front government. Many times activists from outside stayed in his house, and tea was always served in plenty. It must be mentioned here that the land of Singur being highly fertile has given good returns. Singur has no similarity with villages, but is closer to upcoming town. Therefore, the farmers here are well off and their children aspire for a better life.
It was a joint family where Manik Das lived with his wife Taposi and children. Now after becoming a member of the Zila Parishad, he has made a separate garish two-story house, with big, heavy iron gates. His wife Taposi and sister-in-law Basanti were also arrested with him and were put in jail for a fortnight. The women activists from outside, who were also arrested with Taposi remember her as a cheerful, fun loving person. The team wanted to meet Taposi, but her ‘heavy weight husband’, covered by two bodyguards did not let us talk to her. She silently vanished after serving tea.
Manik Das informed us about the compensation that 3569 shareholders are receiving each month and asserted that the ‘unwilling farmers’ are now better off than when they were growing crops. He also informed that a Krishi Mandi is being setup in Ratanpur and there are storage godowns in each block, where the government stores the grains that it procures from these Mandis.
Paribartan is the name of a grandchild
Shyamali Das remembers the days when she used to tour with Mamata Banerjee all over the country and fondly recalls sharing puffed rice with her. Her family owned 1.5 bigha of land in the acquired area and before the acquisition spent all their time taking care of the fields. Apart from the food for the family, the fields also provided cash for the education of two adolescent children and other needs. To supplement the income from the land, her husband Tarapada Das used to work as a skilled labourer at construction sites.
Then in 2006 the land was taken away; both husband and wife were arrested; she was forced to sell her Jersey cow. Their fortune took a nosedive. The children were growing up and expenses were increasing, so Shyamali had to depend upon the small help her father could provide. In 2011, around the time Mamata Banerjee came to power with a landslide win, her daughter gave birth to a son, whom she proudly named Paribartan (this Bengali word means ‘change’ and was Mamata Banerjee’s chief slogan in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections).
When the WSS team went to meet Shyamali in her house, the changes were evident. Shyamali, had been a darling of activists; joyous, talkative and laughing all the time. She knew some of us by our names, since some of us had been frequent visitors to her house during the course of movement in 2006-2007. It was easy to spot the ‘paribartan’ that had come upon it. The house had been extended; a new storey had been added and yet another was under construction; the Jersey cow was back in its shed, prosperity was visible. Shyamali’s son who was then in class IX, is now married and takes contracts of carpenter jobs. Tarapada is still doing the same work at construction sites. Apart from this for the land acquired, she, her son and husband get compensation – that comes to a total of Rs 6000/- every month ( Rs 2000/- per head) and 48Kg of rice at Rs 2/- per Kg. Out of the 48Kg of rice that they get for Rs 96/-, she sells the rice they cannot consume. Her husband and son get the compensation as the land was in their names and she gets compensation for the fortnight that she spent in Chandannagar sub-jail. The extra money that they have been receiving for last four years has helped the family to add an extra floor to the house. Though she laments for the Rs 50,000/- she claims she used to get by growing potatoes in her fields, apart from the 15 bags of rice and mustard and linseed oil that the fields yielded, considering operational costs that money is much-much less than what her family receives now without putting in any financial investment or physical labour. The fact is that she sincerely misses her land, an asset, and the freedom that she enjoyed with it. She misses the heydays of movement, being in the limelight and the feeling of empowerment. Now, according to her own account, she is a warehouse of all kinds of illness, starting from heart to arthritis.
Payal was two years old when arrested
Payal was two and a half year old when she was arrested with her mother Krishna Bagh in September 2006 and was charged with attempt to murder. They had two and a half bighas of land in the acquired area. Haradhan Bagh, the grandfather of Payal, committed suicide in 2007. They have less than a bigha of land outside the acquired area, on which Haradhan’s eldest son of does agricultural work. Payal’s father is a carpenter and works in Kolkata. He takes jobs on contractual basis. In all 11 members of the family, including two married daughters, receive compensation. Radha Rani Bagh (Payal’s grandmother), who has recently expired, used to get an additional Rs 10,000/- on 21st July (the Trinamool Congress observes Martyr’s Day on this date) and Rs 5000/- before Durga Puja and was felicitatated on Tapasi Mallick’s Martyrdom Day that falls on 18th December (Tapasi Malik was a teenage girl from Singur who was brutally raped and murdered, allegedly by the guards posted at the acquired site, when she had gone out at night to relieve herself).
Payal is now in school. In her house too one can notice the visible prosperity, the house has been extended, the kitchen is modernized and the washroom can beat any upper middle class home in Kolkata. Payal and her elder sister Anamika study in class VI and BA 1st year, respectively. The militant Krishna is now a typical housekeeper and laments that probably after her mother-in-law’s death, the latter’s elder son – and not Krishna’s husband – will be getting her share of compensation. Though Payel is frequently felicitated, but she is not in the list of compensates, and that is another point of sorrow.
Dusty roads to Dobadi
Dobadi is home to the Bauri community. There are nearly ninety families, all dependent either on farming or on agricultural work. With the exception of one or two, none of them have owned land at any point of time. In fact, with the exception of one family, there isn’t even a recorded Bargadar in the entire village. A primary school has been built in the village with the help of Belur Ramkrishna Mission. Children study there, up to the first few grades. As soon as they grow a bit older, they start working on adjacent fields.
All adults in a family, both male and female, used to work in the fields and life in Dobadi centred round agricultural labour. The village has a total of ninety houses. All except perhaps two or three were mud huts with thatched roofs. Rows of such houses stood beside a muddy trail. During monsoon, when the rains came pouring down, the trail got so muddy that it became difficult to walk on.
Dobadi was the centre of resistance during the Singur movement because people here were in danger of losing their regular work in the fields. The approach road to Dobadi, which was dusty ten years ago is now pitched and motor-able. All the family members who were adults in 2006 are getting compensation. All of them have bank accounts and the compensation amount is deposited on a fixed date every month, without fail. The huts are now in the process of conversion to brick houses under the Gitanjali Housing Scheme (for economically weaker sections) of West Bengal government. The funds under the Gitanjali scheme are distributed through Panchayat and all of them except one Bairagi family have received the funds and built brick and concrete houses. Assuming us to be reporters, the aforementioned Bairagi family approached us with their grievance. Five members of Bairagi family are receiving compensation (that is a total of Rs 10,000/-!). The portion in which the sons live has been made pucca with that money.
Now, the people of Dobadi have once again taken up agricultural labour in distant fields and the extra money that they receive every month contributes to better living. There is a sea change in Dobadi. “It took some time to adjust with the initial shock, but now we have overcome it”, said one Shyama Patra. People of Bobadi demand more young people, who were not adult at the time of struggle and are adults now to be included in the list of compensated persons, and an increase in the compensation amount with respect to inflation.
And we hear the punch line while leaving the place, “We go not want Tata to come back, or the land returned; we want surety of receiving compensation year after year”
The sad face of this once dauntless mass movement, which saw women and men being brutally lathi-charged, sent to jail, charged with fabricated cases, but still undeterred in their resolve not to cede an inch of their land, stuck us with a pathetic poignancy. We remembered what Manik Das told us “people who did not willingly give up their land and refused to accept the one-time compensation from the Left Front government are better off today than those who willingly gave their land and took the said compensation then”. We realized anew:
Ruling parties in opposition may stand beside mass movements with unrestrained vigor, but once in power they will go to any extent to ensure that no mass movement erupts during their reign.
The recent Narada sting operation and before that the Sarada scam had revealed that the entire TMC party is shamelessly uncontrolled when it comes to taking bribes and kickbacks. They are neither loath to squeeze out gigantic bribes from corporates and business houses nor loath to steal a poor man’s savings. And this money is used not only to fill their own coffers but also for a very shrewd political purpose – to buy and thus to silent dissent.
Perhaps the saddest feature of Singur today is the retrogression of women. Shyamali, Tapasi, Krishna were not only valiant warriors but were also mass leaders a mere 9-10 years ago. Today they have humbly, silently and unresistingly gone back to home and hearth, content with the government’s dole and their role in house keeping. Their public lives are now a distant memory and private chores fully make up their present. This casual dismissal of women from the political space and public domain is even more ironic under the chief-ministership of a notoriously firebrand woman.
(Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, West Bengal (WSS, WB) had decided to visit Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, to study the condition of women who had been at the forefront of the heroic struggle against land acquisition and State atrocities back in 2006-2011. WSS, WB, visited Nandigram onMarch10, and Lalgarh on October11 of 2015, the reports of which are already published. This year on Feb27, a four–member team of WSS – comprising Nisha Biswas, Swapna Bandopadhyay, Sharmishtha Choudhury and Swapna Gayen – visited Singur and noted that Singur was a perfect example of purchasing dissent.) public domain is even more ironic under the chief-ministership of a notoriously firebrand woman.