The movement against the government’s land acquisition in Singur began almost the minute when local land owners learned that they stood to loose their land to the Tata’s project. Those farmers who were unwilling to surrender their land in lieu of cash – labelled ‘unwilling farmers’ by the press – organised a movement to prevent the land acquisition from going ahead. In this they were unsuccessful: in December 2006 the government acquired 997 acres of land in Singur under heavy police cover.
But the Singur controversy nonetheless succeeded in severely denting the image of the Left Front as the bitter irony of the situation was not lost to the public: a pro-poor, pro-peasant government had now turned against its own people as it sought to pave the way for private corporate capital which, as it turned out, it was generously subsidising as well. Moreover, many Bengalis were appalled by the state’s use of force and violence during the land acquisition. Events in Nandigram some months later only reaffirmed the impression that the Left Front had become increasingly brutal and arrogant in its dealings with its own people. The Trinamul Congress, then the main opposition party in the state, moved in to provide leadership and organisation to the movements in Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere in the state; and by 2011 the political momentum gathered by the Trinamul was so massive that it was able to oust the Left Front from power for the first time since 1977.
Yet while Singur has thus made an impact on the macro-politics of West Bengal, little has changed on the ground for those farmers who lost their land, and who took part in the movement from 2006 onwards. In 2008 the mass mobilisation of local farmers and TMC activists from across the state in front of the factory gate generated such heat that Ratan Tata, the Chairman of the Tata Group, announced that he was henceforth abandoning his plans for Singur because he could not, as he put it, operate a factory under such ‘hostile local conditions’. Tata’s departure for a while raised local hopes that the acquired land would be returned to its erstwhile owners, but this did not happen: the Left Front had no plans in this regard, and Tata Motors kept on renewing their lease on the land by paying INR 90 lakh annually to the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. The land thus remained off limits to the farmers, and in the de facto possession of Tata Motors and the government.
The farmers had also, already in 2006, challenged the validity of the land acquisition in the Calcutta High Court, but this legal move has so far failed to produce any results. In 2008 the High Court declared that the acquisition of land in Singur in 2006 had taken place in accordance with the letter of the law (the law being the 1894 Land Acquisition Act) and was hence legal. The farmers promptly appealed the case to the Supreme Court where it is still pending – along with more than 31 million other cases which are stuck in various stages of progress in courts across the country. And given the fact that it takes upwards of 15 years on average to decide a court case in India, a verdict from the Supreme Court may not be immediately forthcoming.
When the Trinamul Congress took over from the Left Front in 2011, Mamata Banerjee, the new Chief Minister, announced that a solution to the Singur imbroglio topped her agenda for her first 100 days in office. Her government moved quickly to enact the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act which would enable the return of a portion of the acquired land to the unwilling farmers. Tata Motors moved equally swiftly to challenge the legality of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act in the Calcutta High Court, which ruled in favour of the government. But Tata Motors immediately appealed the decision. In the mean time the Supreme Court issued a stay on the redistribution of land in Singur. And the appeals case too is still pending before the court.
In Singur, six years down the road the ‘unwilling farmers’ still have neither land, nor have they received financial compensation; and many of them struggle to make ends meet. Many of them were, incidentally, not against industry in Singur per se. They just did not want industry at the cost of agriculture. But now they have neither. A recent report in the Hindustan Times suggests that ‘bitterness is in the air’ among the unwilling farmers, who complain that Mamata Banerjee, who reportedly visited Singur 38 times between 2006 and 2011, has not gone there even once after becoming Chief Minister.
But not only the unwilling farmers are finding the going tough. The removal of the 997 acres of agricultural land from the local economic equation has negatively affected the earning opportunities of thousands of local agricultural labourers, who now have to travel long distances to find work. Even those farmers who – more or less eagerly – handed over their land to Tata Motors are unhappy with the present scenario. Many had been promised jobs in the new factory, but these jobs have all but evaporated. Others had hoped that many new local business and employment opportunities would emerge in the wake of the Tata project, but with Tata’s departure, economic activity in the factory area has virtually come to a halt.
When I lived in Singur on and off between 2007 and 2009, many unwilling farmers took great pride in the fact that their movement had brought the plight of farmers hit by forced land acquisition to the attention of an entire nation. Having made their mark on both regional and national politics, they expected these larger political transformations to eventually feed back into Singur for the better. Six years down the road they still wait in vain.