A horrific sight awaited me outside my window as I awoke this morning. I saw that a part of the large community sports ground opposite my building was being dug up. It seemed to be part of some kind of planned work. Later, I found out that the local MP is planning a four-storeyed gymnasium in one corner of the ground.
So, tomorrow, the Congress (ruling party of Maharashtra) has called a protest rally to save the ground, which has been a long-time favourite with local cricket-lovers and joggers/walkers. The Congress, undoubtedly, is more interested in the matter as the MP behind the project is from the Shiv Sena, a rival party in the state.
Things have taken such a political twist in another state as well – West Bengal. The matter of West Bengal’s Singur district has become a political battlefield now, with most parties looking for their 15 minutes of fame by expressing their views on the matter.
The case: the left government of West Bengal has given around 1000 acres of land in Singur to Tata Motors for the construction of a manufacturing site that will produce India’s cheapest car (Rs 1,00,000 per car). Work has already begun on this project but now the opposition party in the state, Trinamool Congress has launched a protest on behalf of farmers from Singur who claim that agricultural land is being used for the project. Apparently, only 60 acres of the 1,000 acres of land being used to set up the factory is barren; the rest are a combination of farmland (some for three-crop cultivation), wetland, temple site, Hindu cremation site etc.
Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee is on hunger strike to protest this alleged injustice. Renowned social activist Medha Patkar, who has been banned from entering Singur, is also refusing to eat and drink. The ruling left government, which has been criticised for pandering to corporate interests contrary to its ideologies, has called both protesters to the table but they refuse. At the centre in Delhi, the opposition BJP party has launched an attack on the left for ignoring Singur’s farmers. Work, meanwhile, on the project continues as the state government thinks this is good investment for West Bengal. They claim to have paid most farmers a more than handsome compensation for their land.
In all this, the only silent party that everyone is waiting to hear from is the Tata group. Though there have been some comments from the Tata Motors chairman on how they do everything according to the rulebook, those comments still remain at best, non-specific. Their showroom in West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, was ransacked; protesters who took to the streets were beaten by the police; and, life in Kolkata has been brought to a standstill on more than one occassion by protesters and political activists. The Tatas remain silent despite all this.
Their silence caused much annoyance in January, when in a similar land acquisition debate, 12 tribal people were shot at by the police in Kalinganagar (Orissa state) when they protested alleged land grabbing by the state government for industrial purposes. Tata Steel was one of the big land buyers in that case.
But this time, with things taking such a high-profile political turn, and the media closely monitoring the issue, it will become incumbent upon the Tatas to come forth and make clear their position at some point. After being revered in India for their community work, an accusation of land grabbing and destruction of people’s livelihoods will be a shameful blot on their whiter than white reputation. Also, they may not relish the idea of being at the centre of a political tug-of-war.
Poulomi Saha, India Editor, Mumbai