In India, 'People's Car' Stirs Popular Ire

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 22, 2008

BAJEMELIA, India -- Rickshaw-puller Robin Gosh hoped for a better-paying job when Tata Motors announced plans to build a factory in India's West Bengal state to churn out the world's cheapest car. The $2,500 Nano was hailed as "the People's Car," and people like Gosh were going to help build it.

Gosh, who lives in this village near the Tata factory in the town of Singur, sold his bicycle rickshaw after he landed a job unloading trucks at the 1,000-acre plant, an hour's drive from Kolkata, the state capital.

But in recent weeks, the "people's car" -- a celebrated symbol of a new India making private transportation affordable to ordinary citizens -- has hit a serious pothole: the people's protests.

Massive demonstrations led by the state's opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, have shut down the Tata plant. After protesters threatened assembly line workers, the automaker suspended production of its history-making Nano, a mini rear-engine car reminiscent of the Volkswagen Beetle.

Last week, two other Indian states -- Karnataka in the south and Uttarakhand in the north -- offered Tata 1,000 acres for its car factory. However, those close to the talks said the automaker still hoped the Singur plant could be reopened, having invested an estimated $350 million in the operation.

Many of Gosh's fellow villagers say they were pressured to sell their farms to West Bengal's government at a pittance. The land was then turned over to Tata, leaving about 1,000 farmers in this fertile potato belt along the Ganges River out of work. Now Gosh has found himself out of work, as well -- and at odds with his neighbors, who say they oppose the Tata factory because of what they call the company's predatory land-grabbing practices.

"I thought that if the factory is there, the next generation would have a better future," said a furious Gosh, sipping tea in a monsoon rain with other jobless men. "Now my neighbors say: 'Go to Tata, you traitor. Let them take care of you.' "

Similar face-offs between big business and small farmers loom over dozens of pending land acquisition deals in India, affecting construction of a variety of enterprises, including call centers and condominium complexes. The controversy is one of the starkest symbols of the growing pains entailed in the country's struggle to transform itself into a modern industrialized economy. Nationwide, acquisition bids for about 92,000 acres -- worth an estimated $54 billion -- have been stalled by protests launched mainly by peasant farmers.

"Singur is a test case for all of India," said Abhirup Sarkar, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. "Because of population pressure in India, people usually own or work tiny plots of land. That makes it really hard for industries to move in and acquire land because they have to negotiate with so many landowners. For an Indian to leave their land requires a leap of faith. For them, land is security."

But the transformation of farmland into industrial parks and enterprise zones appears to be accelerating in India, where two-thirds of the country's 1.1 billion people live in farming villages, economists say. Cities are severely overcrowded, as unskilled, landless peasants move into teeming urban slums, unprepared for jobs in a modernizing economy.

An estimated 60 million largely poor and low-caste Hindus, as well as marginalized Muslims and tribal groups -- dubbed "development refugees" by social commentators -- have been displaced in the name of progress. In the Tata case, a third of the affected landowners were absentee landlords living in cities; the rest were unskilled workers such as Gosh or subsistence farmers with less than an acre.

"It's the livelihoods of vulnerable people that are being threatened," said Rajat Roy, a Bengali newspaper commentator in Kolkata. "In the new, shining India, poor farmers are getting peanuts for their land and left to fend for themselves. With the money from the land, they buy a motorbike or a cellphone, and then what? There needs to be retraining and education packages and more jobs. Right now, we have two different Indias and no connection between the two."

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