Razing Farms for Car Factory Creates Battleground in India

On one side of the conflict there is, improbably enough, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its leader, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister of West Bengal State, for whom the auto plant at Singur, 22 miles west of Calcutta, represents the beachhead of industrial resurgence.

To that end, the state government has recently fenced off the land, deployed hundreds of state police officers and private guards on its perimeter, and, to stave off protests, banned assemblies of five or more people in villages nearby.

The stakes for Mr. Bhattacharjee, 62, a Communist Party stalwart who has of late aggressively courted private investment, could not be higher. And that shows in his zeal.

“All leading investors are closely watching whether the government will fail to start this project,” he said in an interview. “For us, there is no space. We just cannot roll back. It will send a bad message all over the country and the world.”

His message is stark and simple: West Bengal, a symbol of strife and ruin for more than 30 years whose capital, Calcutta, was once called “a dying city” by Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister, is once again open for business.

It is for this reason, not to mention his party’s iron hold on this state since 1977, that Mr. Bhattacharjee is sometimes regarded as the Chinese-style leader among Indian Communists. He has staked his reputation on promoting industrial growth. He has embraced privatization of state-run enterprises. He has scolded trade unions. He has criticized the general strikes that shutter this city for at least a couple of days each year. He has welcomed foreign multinationals. Money, he declared this year, has no color.

“We committed some mistakes in the past,” he said of the Communist tenets of yesterday. “Now I can humbly say our policy has changed.”

If Mr. Bhattacharjee’s government sees the car plant as “the flagship project” of a rising West Bengal — more hammer, less sickle, one might say — his critics, who range from the political opposition to advocates of peasants’ rights, are equally confident that the industrial project will bring ruin. They accuse him of railroading people into selling their farmland, and of neglecting those who survive on it, chiefly laborers and sharecroppers.

That the land here is particularly rich, at times producing three or four crops a year, has made the fight more intense. In recent weeks, protests against the project have spilled into Calcutta, further snarling traffic in the city center and, in December alone, prompting three general strikes.

Tensions flared in mid-December, when the body of a teenage girl who had protested the project was found inside the fenced perimeter of the factory site, strangled and burned.

In Singur, a village pressed against that fence, resignation is mixed with rage. Graffiti on the side of one building screams: “Look around. Identify the stooges of Tata.”

Singur is sharply divided between those who said they agreed to sell their land, and those who held out. The happiest are those like Nimai Chandra Mukherji, 71, a retired civil servant, who long ago gave up tilling his land and rented it to sharecroppers. For page 2 of article, go to New York Times

 

Also posted at IHT. The story is receiving much coverage, including: an online documentary and an editorial in the Hindustan Times.

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