The first decision Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet took after assuming office in 2011 was to return the 400 acres of land acquired for the Tata Nano plant from unwilling farmers in Singur. It was a moment pregnant with significance – and irony. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had ruled West Bengal for 34 years on the basis of their land reforms.
The redistribution of farmland from “kulaks” to sharecroppers formed the bedrock of Jyoti Basu’s record as India’s longest-serving chief minister. Yet, this regime had come to end because Bengali farmers felt threatened by the Left Front’s insistence on using the colonial Land Acquisition Act to forcefully acquire farmland for capitalist industry.
Five years after her heady win, though, Mamata Banerjee’s promise to return the land back to the farmers of Singur still remains unfulfilled. The West Bengal government’s move to take back the forcefully acquired land has been challenged by the Tatas and the case is still stuck in court. In effect, this has meant a lose-lose situation: no farming land and no industry. Yet, this hasn’t affected the Trinamool politically. The ruling party is comfortably ahead of the Left-Congress alliance in Singur, powered by the superior rural development the area has seen and Mamata Banerjee’s pro-farmer image.
The Singur agitation started in 2006, led by a farmer named Becharam Manna (who is now a Trinamool legislator in the West Bengal Assembly). It was soon picked up by Mamata Banerjee, as a way to attack the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose government had facilitated the land acquisition for the Tata Nano plant. In 2008, the agitation resulted in Tata pulling out of Singur and moving to Gujarat.
By 2011, the newly-formed Trinamool government passed a law to take back the land. Tata however, challenged the law and in 2012, the Calcutta High Court ruled in favour of the company, sending shock waves through the Trinamool Congress. With the case now being fought in the Supreme Court, Banerjee candidly announced in the Assembly on February 27, “I have done my bit for Singur. We have enacted the law to return land. Now it’s in the courts. If the courts take five years or 50 years. We are helpless.”
While factually correct, this stand hardly benefits the people of Singur. The CPI(M) was quick to latch on. In January, former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya announced in Singur that the party would renew its push for industrialisation in the region. Even more boldly, the CPI(M) kicked off its campaign in Singur with an actual Tata Nano leading a procession of party workers.
The CPI(M) candidate from Singur, Rabin Deb, was quite clear that he intended to pin the Trinamool on the issue. “Land, shops, employment: it all went down the drain because of the Trinamool’s politics,” he said. “We are very clear that the CPI(M) is hugely in favour of a factory. We are pro-industry and pro-farmer.”
At the Congress office in Singur, party worker Amal Mitra also painted a picture of disappointment about the state's ruling party. “Mamata won here in 2011 because she promised us industry in the form of a BHEL [Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited] or Indian Railways plant,” he claimed. “But none of that came through and the people have realised they’ve been fooled.”
At Singur town, shopkeepers and storeowners rue the Tata plant’s closure a decade ago. “Our sales had doubles when the plant had started,” said Qazi Naseemur Rehman, who runs a mattress store. “A factory would have been excellent for Singur – and the Trinamool ruined it.”
Namita Mandol, 52, a shopper at the largest clothes store in Singur, is clear that the plant should have stayed. “This could have been the new Tatanagar,” she said referring to Jamshedpur. “We could have had cinemas, hospitals and colleges. Now we have nothing.”
This strong but tiny urban sentiment, though, is counteracted by a much larger rural voice against the plant – the politics of which is still at play in the area and is mostly backing the Trinamool.
Benimadhab Ghosh, 60, was angry that his 4.5 bighas of land was taken away without his permission. “What does a farmer have but his land?" he said. "What will I do with money? How long will it last?”
Ghosh was displeased that he still hasn’t got back his land but his anger is softened by the free rations the Trinamool government is distributing to farmers forced to part with their land. This includes 16 kilograms of rice and a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 for each family.
Trinamool’s development work
This gesture is backed up by visible rural development in Singur. Retired lawyer Ranjit Chatterjee, 62, had a picture of Rahul Gandhi up on his wall, so his political allegiance was quite clear. Yet he wasn't above expressing appreciation for Banerjee’s work in the area. “There are no kaccha roads in Singur anymore – they’ve all been metalled,” he points out. “And Mamata’s cycle distribution scheme has done wonder for school enrolment. It feels great to see so many children going to school every morning.”
The cycle distribution scheme, called Sabuj Sathi, or Green Companion, is one the Trinamool’s most effectove schemes all across rural Bengal.
In the Haripal constituency, adjacent to Singur, Becharam Manna, pioneer of the land agitation, says he is “200% confident" of winning. “Yes, I know the land hasn’t been given back but the people are aware that we have done all we could,” he said brusquely. “The farmers know that the Trinamool is watching out for them and that’s what matters – not what you people in Kolkata think.”
In 2011, the Trinamool Congress had won the Singur seat by nearly 35,000 votes. Five years later, if anything, it seems to be in a stronger position on the back of its development work. In many ways, Singur might be typical of the southern Bengal region, where the Trinamool has profited from a mixture of populism and development. And since this region contains three fourths of West Bengal’s Assembly constituencies, that should leave the Left-Congress coalition quite worried.