Singur is a sleepy hamlet, a part of the Hooghly district less than 50 kilometres from Kolkata. Accessible mostly by local buses, it briefly held the promise of becoming an auto hub for the country as well as an engine of Bengal’s industrial revival.
That promise was belied by a political slugfest between a newly created Trinamool Congress led by its firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee looking for a cause that she could take to the hustings and a ruling CPI(M) government that was desperately trying to woo industrial investment after years of neglecting it.
Nano was a pet project for Tata group supremo Ratan Tata and by a happy coincidence, the group was looking for land to house the plant even as the West Bengal government was seeking such a project. The two sides met. Promises were made and it looked like India’s first small car would be made in Bengal.
The initial site proposed for the plant by the state government was right next to Kharagpur town, the seat of one of the country’s most famous engineering institutes. It was also a 90-minute drive from Kolkata and 100 Kms from Haldia Port. This land was apparently free of any encumbrances having already been acquired by the administration. But in a last-minute twist, the final location chosen was Singur, perhaps because of its good connectivity and proximity to the airport. But this came with a rider: the land still needed to be acquired from local farmers. While many of them were happy to sell their farmlands there was a group that wasn’t so agreeable. As columnist Sudeep Chakravarti put it memorably in a column for Mint: “The company bet on the government to come through for it. The government bet on the company. Both lost.”
Initially, though, it seemed smooth sailing and in May 2006, the Left Front Government, fresh from its thumping victory in the state elections, decided to acquire 997 acres for the Tata Motors factory in Singur. The process of buying the land proved to be way more complex than the government had anticipated and soon it became a bitter struggle between the landowners and the government’s negotiators.
By May 2007, matters had come to a boil and that month violence erupted at the plant site with police firing rubber bullets and teargas at activists who had bandied under the umbrella of Krishi Jami Rakhsha Committee and hurled bombs and brickbats in a bid to enter the area. By then Mamata Banerjee had also entered the fray and the fiery politician held rallies and protest marches. She also went on an indefinite hunger strike on the issue.
Matters dragged on over the next few years but with little headway in either the land acquisition or an end in sight to the protests, it was evident that the project that had promised so much, was going nowhere. Tata Motors started looking at options and Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat made an offer they just couldn’t refuse.
On October 3, 2008, the Tatas announced they were pulling the plug on the ill-fated project and shifting to Sanand in Gujarat.
The Left Front’s days in the state were also numbered and in the 2011 elections, the Trinamool and its allies won 227 of the 294 seats. Mamata kept her promise and less than a month after she became Chief Minister in May 2011, the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill was passed in the West Bengal Assembly leading to the return of the 400 acres of agricultural land the farmers had parted with earlier.
—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal
(Edited by : Pradeep Suresh V)
First Published: IST