The Supreme Court setting aside the land acquisition by the previous Left Front government in West Bengal for the Nano car plant brings to a flashpoint an issue that had been simmering since 2008. Here’s the political outcome of an issue that eventually damaged the reputation of both the Left government and the Tatas.
THE SINGUR CONUNDRUM
Who acquired the land and why?
As Tata motors announced their world’s cheapest car, Nano, they proposed a factory at Singur in Hooghly district. Soon, Singur became the focus of international attention as the cars were scheduled to roll out into the market by 2008.
Why the controversy?
Around 997 acres of multi-crop farmland was forcibly acquired by the ruling party under the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894. Anger brewed among the local population who depended on agriculture for their livelihood. While 15,000 depended on the land for agriculture, Tata managed to create only 1,000 jobs, many of which were offered outside of the village. Also environmental activists protested that the project would degrade the fertile land.
The Land Acquisition Act 1894 received criticism from activists for but also from economists for its archaic system that potentially led to the economic slowdown. Even if one calls it the idiocy of the legislature, allegations were still thrown at the Left government for not following provisions of the Land act. Suprisingly, the Tatas officially decided to leave Singur on October 3. Eventually, the Kolkata High Court conceded that the West Bengal government’s decision was illegal. After an unsuccessful appeal, even the Supreme Court has declared that due processes and procedures were not followed.
The political calculus
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) was slowly getting a stronghold in West Bengal after the Nandigram incident, where 14 villagers protesting against a chemical factory were killed by the state police. TMC went against Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s government with their “Save Farmland” movement which received massive support from unwilling farmers and notable environmental activists. Eventually Mamata’s party won the 2011 election and also retained power by a thumping majority in 2016, including in the Singur and Nandigram seats.
Where did the Nano factory go?
After Ratan Tata’s decision to move the factory outside Bengal, the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi sent an SMS to him saying ‘Suswagatham’ and fourteen months later a new Nano factory was built in Sanand. Ironically, the 1100 acres of land in Sanand also included fertile agricultural lands and the Tatas had to face another land acquisition controversy. However, the protests ended after the Gujarat government compensated the farmers by paying them four-times above the market price.