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Left to rot

The memorial to Tapasi Malik in Singur. Pictures by Uttam Dutta

The statue of Tapasi Malik guards the entrance of Bajemelia village in Singur. Tapasi, who died six years ago on December 18 at the height of Trinamul’s land agitation here, is Singur’s most famous individual. Her charred body was found in a field near her home, a few metres from where her bust was installed five years later by chief minister Mamata Banerjee on December 18, 2011.

Next to the statue, on a raised wooden platform covered by the Trinamul flag, young men play cards. They look at the approaching visitors, mutter something and laugh and go back to their cards.

Death has cast Tapasi Malik in the certainty of martyrdom. Singur’s living are far more problematic.

On a pleasant winter afternoon, the villages in the block are sleepy and quiet. They even look shy from the outside, not at all like what the current Ground Zero of Bengal politics — from where Mamata shot up, and from where she, according to some, might trip — should look.

Those who work in the fields are coming back.

Bajemelia village under the Trinamul-governed “KGD” (Kamarkundu, Gopalnagar, Daluigachha) panchayat had turned into a battlefield between police and the CPM supporters on one side and Trinamul-backed villagers who would not accept land compensation on the other.

There were no deaths from police action but the memory of the village is pockmarked. Houses hit by teargas shells are pointed out by villagers. Spots from where the teargas shells were hurled are landmarks.

Land of setbacks

Caught between the model of the previous government’s development that went haywire and the demands of populist politics that shaped the next government, Singur has suffered setback after setback.

A plaque stands on the side of one of the many ponds covered with kachuripana (water hyacinths). It says that work on the pond, “punahkhanan” (digging and cleaning), has been completed under the Centre’s MNREGA (100 days’ work) project.

The total expense has been Rs 67,577; total wages paid Rs 28,970 and the number of days villagers got work was 233. The pond doesn’t look dug up or cleaned; villagers say they hardly got a few days’ work.

A narrow, raised mud road separates the pond from a canal, Daibakhal, that runs along a side of the village. It is blanketed by water hyacinths. “The kachuripana began to cover the water from the time of Didi’s movement. It is beyond us now,” says a villager.

The symbolism is inescapable. Singur has been left to rot.

A broken farmer

Gour Kole of Bajemelia village, 72, one of the 3,500-odd villagers who went with Mamata, hobbles down from the raised mud verandah to meet his visitors. His wife offers sugar and water in steel glasses and wishes she could offer lunch.

The soft-spoken Kole is a much-loved man. He had staked his all, six bighas, on Mamata. He was a relatively prosperous farmer. His courtyard, which would be stacked with bales of paddy, was the hub of the neighbourhood; Mamata, and many other leaders such as “mastermoshai” Rabindranath Bhattacharya, the Trinamul veteran who led the party’s Singur campaign from the front, would drop in.

Now Gour barely has enough to eat. He had earlier married off his four older daughters from the earnings of his land. The youngest, too, he married off, but after he lost his land. He is grateful to his son-in-law. “He is a compassionate man. He didn’t accept dowry but I still owe him Rs 60,000,” he says. Gour’s young son is unemployed.

In July this year, Gour fell from a height when he was forced to repair his house himself: it was crumbling after the monsoon. It still is. Gour broke his right leg and was taken to Serampore subdivisional hospital but is yet to recover fully.

What hurt him the most is the party’s lack of concern. “Not a single leader from the party visited me once,” says Kole. No one helped him, financially or otherwise.

The villagers felt abandoned first when they realised getting back “khas jami” (government land) is not easy, even if Didi had promised so. They are feeling further abandoned because “mastermoshai” wants to resign as MLA. Bhattacharya, the former agriculture minister, was recently replaced in the department by his Singur party colleague Becharam Manna who has become junior minister. It provoked an outburst from Bhattacharya against his party that created a stir.

Latika’s vow

Meanwhile, no one visited Gour. His neighbours, to many of whom Gour’s wife has been a mother figure, are angry for him. Some of them are bargadars — landless share-croppers who work on others’ fields. They too were entitled to compensation at the rate of Rs 2.8 lakh per bigha for sali jami (infertile land) and Rs 3.6 lakh per bigha for suna jami (multi-crop land).

They all joined Didi. “Dada’s (Gour’s) land was our land too. When I have been in trouble, I have been able to borrow a handful of rice and a few vegetables from boudi,” says Latika Kole, Gour’s relative and neighbour.

But Latika says she will wait till January 31. “After January, we will go to the factory, tear down the walls, and grab whatever land we can,” she says.

Calcutta High Court is now hearing a petition to determine if minister Manna committed contempt of court through his comments on the Singur case and declaring that people would take to the fields to enact a new law.

Farmer to farm hand

Shyamsundar Ghosh of Khasherbheri village, a tall, dignified man, is the owner of a two-storey house that he built from the earnings of his three bighas that are within the Tata factory boundary. He still lives in that house with his wife and two grown-up sons. He used to hire four to six labourers every day.

He is a farm labourer now, working on others’ fields. He relives the moment he thought he was creating history. “Didi said that she will return our land if she finds a way. We plunged into the struggle. Didir jonyo maar kheyechhi (I got beaten up for Didi’s sake),” he says.

Now he doesn’t know what to think. Sometimes he thinks that nothing will come of the land; sometimes he feels he will be compensated.

“If we are to be compensated, we should be compensated at the current market rate and be paid interest for all the lost years. I cannot sleep at night, worrying. I wish the factory was established. Then my sons would have got work,” he says.

“Anichchhuk chashira ichchhuk hoye gechhe (The unwilling have become willing),” he adds.

A bond breaks

If land is inalienable from the farmer, as Mamata’s slogan of “Ma, Mati, Manush” (Mother, Land and People) suggests, it is a difficult ideal to sustain. For the “unwilling” 400 acres, there were 600 “willing” acres for the Nano factory.

But for some farmers, land was truly inalienable. These six years have changed that relationship: the absent factory can only make them think of land as money, or nothing.

An old man sits on the floor at the entrance of his crumbling mud hut in Bajemelia village. All of his land is inside the boundary wall of the factory. He refuses to speak.

A young man on a bicycle, who says he collects blood samples, stops.

“I will tell you what he wants to say. Mamata Kolkatar meye, Kolkatar-i thakbe (Mamata is from Calcutta and that is where her loyalties are),” he says. He is interrupted up by another neighbour.

“He was with mastermoshai,” the neighbour says.

Matriarch’s irony

“We were a peaceful lot,” says Chhabirani Polen of Khasherbheri village, another owner of a two-storey house, pointing to the original mistake, the CPM’s strategy of forcibly acquiring the land for the Tatas without the consent of the farmers. “We wouldn’t have fought at all if the CPM men didn’t start beating us up.”

She says she is in her seventies. She is the mother of eight — three sons and five daughters. She has been fortunate in a way. After her husband’s death, her sons could get the panchayat to say that they were heirs to their father. So all of them are getting the monthly allowance from the state government: Rs 2,000 per family per month and Rs 16kg rice per family per month at Rs 2 per kg.

Not all families have been so fortunate with panchayat certificates.

But Chhabirani has to work the whole day: a frail and elderly matriarch of a large family living in a two-storey house returning from the fields after 3 in the afternoon.

“No one came and told us that our land would be taken. The CPM men came and told us that we have to give our land. They began to beat us up. We saw the wall going up. That was when the violence started. We didn’t want to give up our land. It was everything to us,” she says.

Master’s voice

Mashtermoshai Rabindranath Bhattacharya, who sits close to his landline to receive the numerous phone calls at his Singur home after his outburst against the Trinamul leadership, says he still thinks the movement was justified. He says his party didn’t start the agitation.

“The farmers took us there. Of course, there was space for us to take up the farmers’ interest, but when the first protest happened, Trinamul wasn’t there. The farmers called us and asked for our help,” he says.

He thinks the decision to shift the factory was right and compensation in such a case can never be adequate. Only money cannot be compensation enough. “Money is not land. Many farmers who got a few lakhs have spent the money.”

Bhattacharya says many farmers who accepted compensation are demanding a further amount: they have spent all they had got.

The farmers now agree that the Tata project would have generated jobs that could have offered livelihoods. Though that would hardly be compensation for land, it would be better than an absent factory that has swallowed their land.

A family’s fortunes

At Bajemelia village, Tapasi Malik’s family seems an exception. It doesn’t look it has to deal with much hardship: her father has been given a store. He sits by the pond with neighbours and one of his young sons comes out. He looks dashing as he pushes a red Honda scooter, a rare bit of colour and speed in the sedate surroundings. He talks a little with his father and flashes something ever rarer — a 1000-rupee note. He presses it into his father’s hand and rides into the sunset, past Tapasi’s bust.

On the horizon, the ghost of the Nano factory looms large.