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Same ghost at every nook

Singur, July 14: The clock in Singur is stuck at a tumultuous hour from the summer of 2006.

Bengal has moved on, from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to Mamata Banerjee and from the farm-versus-factory debate to the default crisis in the districts. But Singur still stands where it was seven summers ago when Mamata had vowed to prevent Tata Motors from setting up its small-car plant in the Hooghly suburb.

Mamata’s agitation forced the company to pack up from Singur in 2008 and relocate the plant in Sanand, Gujarat.

When Singur votes tomorrow in the panchayat polls, Cyrus Mistry, who succeeded Ratan Tata as chairman of Tata Sons, will be in Calcutta. Mistry reached the city this afternoon to attend the annual general meeting of Tata Global Beverages Ltd tomorrow.

To someone driving past what could have been the Tata Nano factory, the deserted site off the Durgapur Expressway looks like a ghost shed that might have been any other closed factory in a state witnessing a flight of capital since the 1970s.

Realisation of a missed opportunity appears to be sinking in. Alo Das, a homemaker from Beraberi Purba Para, said: “We have become poorer now.”

Alo’s husband Bablu had a one-bigha plot that was acquired for the factory. Bablu was an “unwilling” land-loser and hadn’t accepted compensation. He now works on others’ land as a day labourer while Alo binds bidis for a living, earning around Rs 400 a month.

Such stories of struggle abound in Singur. But livelihood is not the sole problem.

As in many rural areas in Bengal, the main road passing through Beraberi and Khasher Bheri — the two villages with the highest number of land-losers — is made of brick and is hardly eight feet wide. The village alleys are dirt tracks that are almost impossible to walk on during the wet season.

Khasher Bheri drinks from deep tube-wells because the pump built to supply tap water lies incomplete for 17 years, thanks to a lawsuit moved by the plot owner over compensation.

In spite of these problems, Singur residents, who were first promised a world-class automobile factory and then the return of their land, have only one thing to discuss.

“I haven’t got my land back despite Didi’s (Mamata’s) promises. Now the matter is stuck in the Supreme Court. We don’t know what will happen,” said Ganesh Manna, 45, of Beraberi Purba Para.

The court had last week asked the Tatas to consider returning the land which many feel is mostly uncultivable now.

Ganesh’s family didn’t take the compensation offered for its 12-bigha plot, acquired for the factory.

The Mannas say they earned more than Rs 1.5 lakh a year from their multi-crop land, growing paddy, potatoes and vegetables, a portion of which they kept for themselves.

Ganesh now does odd jobs but earns less than half of what he used to.

Ahead of the rural polls here, the CPM-led Opposition is holding Trinamul responsible for the residents’ plight. The debate whether Singur has missed the bus of development is back on centre stage.

Ganesh Patra, CPM candidate from Khasher Bheri, is not a member of the party or any of its mass organisations but his campaign revolves round how Singur has lost out because of Mamata’s protests.

Patra had received Rs 3 lakh as compensation for his one-bigha plot that he had parted with willingly. His wife Lakshmi and sons Rajkumar and Sishir worked at the factory site in 2007-08.

Lakshmi was paid a cleaner’s monthly salary of Rs 3,000 while the brothers unloaded sand from trucks, earning Rs 400 to Rs 500 a day. Since October 2008, they have been jobless.

“I am angry with Trinamul for driving the Tatas away, causing our earnings to stop,” Patra has been telling street-corner meetings.

The popular mood is reflected in the manner the panchayat elections are being fought here. Although Hooghly has gifted Trinamul its biggest kitty of uncontested wins — 1,444 of the 3,822 gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad seats — in Singur the party is facing opposition in all the seats.

Trinamul leaders claim they are confident of a sweep in Singur, which has 16 gram panchayat, 47 panchayat samiti and three zilla parishad seats.

“Our government gives Rs 2,000 to each unwilling land-loser every month and 16kg rice at Rs 2 a kg. Besides, our government is trying its best to return the land. So we expect our supporters to vote for us,” said Dudh Kumar Dhara, Trinamul gram panchayat candidate from Khasher Bheri and a prominent face during the anti-land acquisition movement.

Given the villagers’ mood, Trinamul candidates like Dhara have started talking about the need for industrialisation during their campaigns.

Getting industry, however, will not be easy for Singur, where business has witnessed a slump since Tata Motors shut its plant.

In 2006-07, Mukunda Das sold mobile phone top-up cards worth Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a day. His sales now barely touch Rs 8,000 — a dip that contrasts sharply with the rise in such business in most parts of the state.

Metro Hotel and Restaurant at Singur Bazar, one of the town’s oldest eateries, did brisk business with daily sales of more than Rs 10,000. The figure has fallen to Rs 4,000.

“Our business had peaked in 2006-07. Customers used to order Chinese food for lunch. Now we mostly sell rice meals,” said Deb Kumar Ghosh, co-owner of the eatery.


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