Land acquisition: Why Singur is a lost cause

The last 10 years have been busy for 45-year-old Bandana Bag. Since 2006, when she was jailed for protesting against land acquisition for the Tata Motors’ Nano project in Singur by the Left Front government in Bengal, Bag has been with the movement for return of land.

Finally, on August 31, the Supreme Court set aside land acquisition for the project and directed the state government to return the land to its owners within 12 weeks.

The land that Bag was fighting for belonged to her husband, Sapan Bag. Sapan had a share in the family plot of 3.5 bighas (three bighas make an acre), which is equally carved up between six brothers, three sisters and the matriarch of the family, apart from a separate plot of nine cottahs (60 cottahs make an acre).

Sapan and Bandana’s family share translated to a cheque sum of Rs 30,000. No matter what the figure, Bandana is happy. Her purpose has been achieved.

“We have fought so much for this land. Our andolan (protest) has borne fruit,” she says. What next? Will the land be used for cultivation? Bandana doesn’t have an answer just yet.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on her visit to Singur last month, gave land losers physical possession of 103 acres. Since then, government officials say physical possession of 50 per cent of the land has been given; the balance would be completed by November 10.

To signal the start of cultivation, Mamata had scattered mustard seeds and said potato cultivation will commence sometime later.

West Bengal accounts for one-fourth the country’s potato production and Singur happens to be in the spud-growing belt.

Is there a possibility that Bag might sell the land? She is unsure of her next move.

The Bags are among the 2,000 farmers, who had not accepted compensation cheques and were thereby tagged ‘unwilling’. The balance 11,000 farmers, had, however, accepted cheques.

A majority of the ‘unwilling farmers’ don’t know what they will do once the land is returned. They had protested against the coercive methods used by the Left Front government to acquire land. For them, the Supreme Court verdict is like a badge of honour — a recognition of their battle against forcible land acquisition.

Of course, electorally, the recognition came in 2011 when Mamata, who had led the movement against land acquisition in Singur, won by an overwhelming majority, ending a 34-year Left rule in Bengal.

Mamata, in turn, has reciprocated with sops for the ‘unwilling’ in the past five years. Bag and her ilk receive Rs 2,000 a month and 16 kilos of rice at Rs 2 per kilo.

The ‘willing’ have already filed a case in Calcutta High Court saying the dole should be extended to them as well. But that was before the Supreme Court verdict.

“After the stipulated time of 12 weeks, within which the land has to be returned, there will be no divide between the willing and unwilling. If the unwilling are going to get sops, so should we,” says Udayan Das, who owns 13 acres that were acquired by the state for the project.

Das’ belief stems from the Supreme Court verdict, which has said compensation made to the ‘willing’ shall not be recovered, as they were not able to enjoy the land for the past decade.

In a way, this places the ‘willing’ and ‘unwilling’ on an equal footing. The project-affected landowners will have both compensation and land.

Whether Das’ theory on extending dole to the ‘willing’ is tenable, Mamata will have the last word. But the chief minister has offered Rs 10,000 as aid for farming for all. The state government will also set up a Customs Hiring Centre that would facilitate loans for buying farming equipment.

Government officials say, the dole for the ‘unwilling’ will continue till November, but there is little clarity on this.

Tata Motors had to invest in filling the land and levelling it to avoid flooding. Of a project area of 997 acres, the level of 800 acres had to be raised by six to eight feet with fly ash. Plus, some 64 concrete slabs have been found in the site area now being broken with rockbreakers.

“Around 183 acres is not cultivable but we are trying to make it cultivable by November,” a government official said.

Das claims there could be other problems. “Proper land records are not available, which could encumber the process. How will the entire 997 acres be redistributed? What will the government tell the court?” he asks.

Around 300 people have not collected compensation cheques and remain untraceable.

Das is a staunch supporter of industry. During the agitation, he formed the Singur Shilpa Bachao Committee (Save Singur Industry Committee), and has been at the forefront of the movement to restore industry to Singur. A doctor by profession, Das runs a hospital in Singur. A thriving industry would have made him more prosperous, he reckons.

“I have got back papers for only six acres. Once I get back the entire land in its original form, I plan to set up an agri-based industry on the land. We used to have a multi-purpose storage before it was acquired for the project,” he says.

Unlike Bag, Das knows what he’s going to do with the land once it’s returned; his sense of purpose is still alive.

In Singur, the divide between the ‘willing’ and ‘unwilling’ is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

HOW THE SC ORDER PUT ‘WILLING’ & ‘UNWILLING’ ON EQUAL FOOTING

  • ‘Willing’ had accepted compensation cheques
  • The order says compensation cheques from the ‘willing’ shall not be recovered, as they have not been able to enjoy the land for the past decade
  • All landowners will get back their original plots
  • ‘Unwilling’ will get compensation cheques
WHAT MAMATA IS OFFERING
  • ‘Unwilling’ will continue to get Rs 2,000, 16 kilos of rice at Rs 2 per kilo till November
  • All landowners will get Rs 10,000 as aid for farming
  • Consultations with state agricultural department on what can be grown on the land, free farming kits
  • A Customs Hiring Centre will be set up to facilitate loans for buying farm equipment
THE STORY SO FAR

May18, 2006: Tata Motors announces Nano plant in Singur, West Bengal

 

January 21, 2007: Tata Motors starts construction of small car plant in West Bengal

 

December 3, 2007: Mamata Banerjee announces indefinite hunger strike on Singur issue

 

December 19, 2007: Tata Motors announces launch of Nano (people’s car) at Delhi auto expo on January 10, 2008

 

December 28, 2007: Mamata ends fast

 

January 18, 2008: Calcutta HC upholds Singur land acquisition, says it is legal

 

February 15, 2008: Tatas announce first Nano to be rolled out of Singur by October

 

May 21, 2008: TMC wins majority in panchayat elections

 

August 24, 2008: Mamata starts indefinite dharna at Singur

 

September 2, 2008: Tata Motors suspends work on Nano plant at Singur

 

October 3, 2008: Tata Motors decides to move out of Singur

 

May 20, 2011: Mamata sworn in as Bengal CM, announces first Cabinet decision to return 400 acres to unwilling farmers

 

June 14, 2011: Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011, passed in the Legislative Assembly

 

June 22, 2011: Tata Motors moves Calcutta HC challenging the Bill

 

September 28, 2011: Single-bench Calcutta HC (Justice I P Mukerji) upholds the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011

 

October 29, 2011: Tata Motors challenges the order of the Calcutta HC

 

June 22, 2012: The division bench of the Calcutta HC strikes down the Bill

 

August 6, 2012: The West Bengal govt moves Supreme Court, challenging the Calcutta HC order striking down the Singur Land Act

 

May 5, 2016: SC observes Left Front-led Bengal govt rushed through the land acquisition process

August 31, 2016: SC sets aside land acquisition by Bengal govt for Tata Motors in Singur


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