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TWIN TOWERS

Tamluk CPM candidate Sheikh Ibrahim Ali

A knot of boys in their teens is forcing vehicles plying along the pucca road from Sonachura to Bhangabera to stop and pay up for Manasha puja, a few hundred meters from a 130-ft tall martyrs’ tower near Tekhali Bridge, a silent witness to a battle that took place seven years ago between men in uniform and villagers in Nandigram.

The Shahid Smriti Stambha was a dream project of Subhendu Adhikari, the sitting MP from Tamluk who threw his weight behind the villagers during their struggle to protect their land, in the memory of 14 people who died when police opened fire on protesters on March 14, 2007.

An eerie silence envelops the martyrs’ compound — which also has a prayer hall, a library, a guesthouse and a dispensary — on a sultry April afternoon. But the Rs 2.25-crore structure, standing tall amid hutments in the area, has a loud message from Subhendu written all over it — he won’t let the Nandigram chapter fade from the memory of people of Bengal.

Nandigram er koto naam…. Tai to apnara khoborer byabsa korte Kolkata theke ashen. Amader- kichu diye jaan, (Nandigram is a famous place.… That’s why you people come from Calcutta to trade in news. Give us something),” said a young man demanding subscription to the puja.

The Shahid Smriti Stambha, the memorial to the Nandigram martyrs

In his late teens, the young man with the frame of an athlete was in no mood for argument and with his prying eyes, he was sizing up everyone in the car.

In the air was the whiff of suspicion, the seeds of which were sown in early 2007 when the Haldia Development Authority had issued a notice announcing its intention to acquire land for a petrochemicals hub.

The boy, whose name could not be asked as he did not entertain any questions, might have been too young to understand what was happening around seven years ago when Subhendu was mobilising people under the banner of the Bhumi Ucchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), and thus making a mark in Bengal politics.

But the suspicion in the boy’s eyes made it clear that he was carrying the legacy of 2007 — the biggest political asset of Subhendu — when villagers got united under the BUPC and Nandigram was cut off from the rest of the world.

Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who had conceived the proposed hub, had dumped the plan long ago after the state police bungled while trying to establish the rule of law in Nandigram on March 14, 2007.

Riding the support of farmers, Subhendu won the Lok Sabha polls in 2009 and his leader, Mamata Banerjee replaced Bhattacharjee at Writers’ in the 2011 Assembly elections.

Although the transformation of the political landscape ensured immunity from any land-grab attempts, villagers in Nandigram seem to be stuck in the summer of 2007.

“Very little has changed in Nandigram…. The only visible change is the Shahid Smriti Stambha,” said Chandrakanta Paik, a CPM supporter who now lives in Haldia instead of his family home at Sonachura in Nandigram.

“For a CPM supporter, the place is not safe…. At least 2,000 people from Nandigram live elsewhere as they don’t dare going back to their village,” he added.

A visit to Nandigram — one of the seven Assembly segments that come under Tamluk — ahead of the May 12 polls is enough to understand why people like Paik do not want to return to their villages. Trinamul hegemony is evident everywhere in this leafy corner of the state. One has to struggle to find any wall graffiti of the BJP, the Congress or the CPM, while Subhendu’s smiling face and his name are visible across the length and breadth of Nandigram.

Ekhane TMC mane Subhendu ar Subhendu mane TMC…. Ekhane TMC chara kichu nei (Here TMC means Subhendu and Subhendu means TMC…. There is no party other than TMC),” said a middle-aged man near Sonachura Bazar, asked “vote er ki hawa bujhchen? (what is your sense of the poll?)”

The cut-out of Subhendu Adhikari rises above that of Mamata Banerjee. Pictures by Pradip Sanyal

The similarity with what a section of sycophants in the Congress had made popular in the 1970s by chanting “Indira is India, India is Indira” immediately comes to mind but Subhendu’s sway over the party is a truth that even his critics — be it in the Opposition or in the party — do not contest.

Trinamul’s star campaigners are conspicuous by their absence and Mamata has held only one rally in the Tamluk constituency — all clues to Subhendu’s dominance.

Although a four-cornered contest has made the elections interesting this summer, neither a Modi wave nor any impact of state Congress president Adhir Chowdhury, who is trying to energise the party, is perceptible in Tamluk.

The Congress and the BJP nominees — Anwar Ali and Badshah Alam — have hardly made a mark in the constituency amid murmurs that they have opted out gracefully. CPM nominee Sheikh Ibrahim Ali, a 29-year-old student leader, is visible but he is steering clear of trouble spots like Nandigram.

The question that comes to mind is what this dominance had delivered for the electorate, especially those in Nandigram, without whom the sitting Tamluk MP would not have been what he is today.

“The ruling party had made a lot of promises but they have hardly delivered,” said Milan Pradhan, a Congress leader in Nandigram.

According to him, the promises included a wagon component manufacturing unit at Jellingham, a super-speciality hospital, another hospital in the memory of the martyrs, a 28km rail link between Bajkul and Nandigram and a mandi for farmers.

“All these promises have remained on paper…. The ruling party has absolute control in the area as they won all the 16 Assembly seats and swept the rural polls. What is stopping them from delivering?” asked Pradhan.

Subhendu was not available for comment. Residents said that over Rs 30 crore was spent by the Haldia Development Authority (HAD) to lay roads in Nandigram. Besides, funds released under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana were used to connect remote villages.

A visit revealed that the road network has improved since 2007 and work on Hizli Tidal Canal has taken off, which in the long run will help farmers.

“The chief minister had promised job creation…. She had said that those who had migrated in search of jobs would return as there would be enough jobs. But people are still migrating as there are no jobs,” said Pradhan.

The fact that young men stop vehicles and force people to pay up for a puja suggests that the benefits of the so-called Bengal development model have not trickled down to Nandigram, where Bhattacharjee’s plan to set up industry lost out to a collective verdict in favour of agriculture.

The same questions bother the ruling establishment around 50km away at Haldia, the industrial township that came up along the port during the Left regime.

“Forget about job creation, holding on to one’s job is a challenge in this industrial township…. In the past couple of years or so, at least 5,000 people have lost their jobs here,” said an HR manager of a company.

“Around 1,000 people lost their jobs after HBT left Haldia…. In the face of uncertainty over the future of Haldia Petrochemicals, over 200 people have quit the company and the size of casual labour force has also shrunk,” he added.

According to him, the only positive development in Haldia in the past few months is industrial peace as factionalism between Trinamul-run trade unions has declined after they managed to oust Citu from the units. But what is worrying for the Trinamul leaders is the absence of any fresh investment, which has slammed the brakes on job creation since HBT, a consortium of India’s ABG and France’s LDA, quit Haldia port in November 2012, citing law-and-order concerns.

“The world of industry lives on perceptions…. The HBT incident is still fresh in the memory of investors. Those who are already in Haldia, they are carrying on as they will have to, but no new investments have come,” said the CEO of one of the biggest companies in Haldia.

The only project that the ruling establishment can show is the Rs 2,300-crore power plant of CESC — which was cleared during the Left regime — that is expected to be commissioned this August.

The nucleus of the port town, Haldia Port, is also saddled with problems, casting a shadow on the future of the township. Poor draft (depth) at the port has already reduced the volume of cargo from 43 million tonnes a year to 30 million tonnes.

“Big vessels cannot come to the port and so companies are using Paradip or Dhamra ports in neighbouring Odisha. Besides, the authorities are yet to find a replacement for HBT for mechanised cargo handling at berths II and VIII at the port. If things continue like this, the port will die and Haldia will cease to exist as an industrial township,” said Biman Mistry, a senior leader of the Calcutta Port and Shore Mazdoor Union, a Left-backed organisation.

Such problems may be reasons enough to give sleepless nights to any sitting MP. But supporters of Subhendu, who won by over 173,000 votes in 2009, claim that the margin will rise this time. The cumulative lead in Assembly seats in the constituency in the 2011 elections had come down to 1.39 lakh.

Whatever be the questions in the minds of voters or discontent among people, Tamluk is a safe seat for Trinamul and Subhendu’s victory is certain.

The main Opposition — the Left — has been in disarray in the district for the past few years, which got compounded since the expulsion of former Haldia strongman Lakshman Seth.

Although the beleaguered CPM leadership has sent party’s secretariat member Rabin Deb to look after the organisation in the district and help CPM candidate Ibrahim sharpen his public speaking, even incurable optimists in the party do not appear to be expecting any surprise.

“Creating even a minor impact in the poll battles in this part of Bengal requires organisational might, which we don’t have…. Ibrahim is a young leader and he is delivering nice speeches in public rallies. We should be happy with that,” said a CPM state committee member.

That’s why a smiling Subhendu stands tall in a 42-foot cut-out that dwarfs another of Mamata near Contai central bus stand.

• Tamluk votes on May 12