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In India, 'People's Car' Stirs Popular Ire
Demonstrations Shut Down Tata Motors Plant

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."

The protests are highly organized, often circuslike events, with flower-festooned stages, marching bands, street-food carts and salesmen hawking umbrellas. During a recent five-day sit-in outside the Tata factory, organizers and volunteers set up a massive tent and dished out 90,000 meals of lentils and rice to hungry demonstrators.

"Singur is a role model for many Third World countries where big corporate houses come and grab the land. We have stopped that," said Becharam Manna, local vice chairman for the Trinamool Congress party and head of the Save Farmland Committee as he stood outside the plant last week during another protest.

Thousands of police in riot gear guarded the factory as truckload after truckload of protesters arrived, chanting, "Down with Tata!" The protesters also blocked hundreds of trucks carrying goods toward New Delhi, the capital, and left them sitting on the new four-lane express highway for hours in the muggy rain.

Leading the agitation is Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who has pounced on the populist issue during an election year. She wants Tata to give back at least 300 acres, but Tata has refused.

The carmaker has, however, threatened to leave. It has shifted part of the production of the Nano to a plant in Pune, in the western state of Maharashtra, hoping to roll out some models in time for the big-spending Hindu holiday of Diwali next month. Meanwhile, it is locked in slow-moving talks with Banerjee, while the state's ruling Communist Party, which wooed Tata to West Bengal, struggles to mediate a deal.

The Tata crisis is rich with ironies. The world's cheapest car depends on cheap land and cheap labor -- the former apparently harder to come by than the latter. Tata says it needs the entire 957 acres at the Singur site to complete its factory, a one-stop shop where all the Nano's parts would be manufactured and assembled.

The Communist Party, which rode to power 30 years ago on a land reform platform, has about-faced. Now it is helping big corporations acquire the land it once worked so hard to give back to the people. Party leaders see such factories as India's best hope for lifting millions out of poverty.

Here in the lush lands around Gosh's village of Bajemelia, many say they are skeptical about a compensation package the government offered evicted farmers last week. The package doubles the price farmers initially got for their land and includes job training for one person in each family displaced by the Tata buyouts.

For now, no one is sure what fresh negotiations with Tata will bring.

But the showdown has made one thing clear in this fertile region, long known as the "Potato Bowl of Bengal": A way of life is changing as India struggles to make the transition from farming to factories. Police patrol the villages. A guard tower in the factory compound looms over Bajemelia. Last week, an annual cooking festival was canceled.

"We just don't feel like eating together anymore," said Nilkanta Langal, 41, who worked as a guard at the plant before it was shut down. He sold his tiny patch of land, a tenth of an acre, for $200. He bought a TV, a cellphone and several rounds of the local brew for his friends. "Now I am out of land, money and a job," he said. "I wish Tata never came here."

Sheik Jalaludin, 55, a potato farmer, sold his plot for $1,200, which he shared with his seven siblings. He then built part of a one-room brick house but ran out of money. Although his grandparents benefited from land reform, he is back to being a landless peasant. He has no education and isn't sure what to do.

So he recently begged for work at a friend's nearby potato patch.

"Just one month ago, I was aspiring to own the famous Nano," he said. Then he laughed and pointed to a long, muddy stretch of crater-pocked road. "But I realized that the 'people's car' would probably fall apart on the people's roads."

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