/ 18 September 2008

High price for a cheap car

When Sushen Santra walked out of his home last week, no one else knew that those steps would be his last. A few hours later his eldest son found the retired labourer’s dead body curled next to an empty pesticide bottle.

The 60-year-old, say his family, had taken his own life because of the increasingly uncertain fate awaiting the plant built to manufacture the world’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano, 48km outside Kolkata, capital of India’s West Bengal state.

Sushen was one of 10 000 farmers who sold their fields for the Tata Nano factory, receiving 335 000 rupees from the state government. With the money and a bank loan, the 10 members of the Santra clan built a two-storey brick house and moved out of their mud huts. Sushen Santra’s three sons were all hired to work in the Tata factory earning 109 rupees a day tending the company gardens.

But in the past few weeks protests by farmers refusing to accept the government’s money for their land have seen Tata suspend work at the 400ha Nano car plant, which was built at a cost of £180-million.

Last week the company said it was looking to shift production to another Indian state, adding that the lives of workers had been threatened by mobs.

Uttam Santra, the dead man’s eldest son, said that it was this news that led his father to commit suicide. “We gave our land because we preferred to work in the factory rather than the farm. If the Tata factory goes, then what will we do? Our land will be useless … We cannot buy [Nano] but it has given us jobs. That’s why we want the factory to stay.” The Nano, slated for sale in October with a price tag of 100 000 rupees, was supposed to bring motoring to the masses.

Lining the four-lane highway that runs from Kolkata to Singur are hundreds of trucks that have been forced back from the Tata factory. The plant, which can make 250 000 cars a year, lies empty, save for the thousands of policemen guarding the three metre-high wall. The entrances have also been closed to make sure demonstrators don’t break in.

Just outside the plant hundreds of locals flocked to a stage with flags carrying the slogan “No No to Nano”. Many at the rally in Singur were farmers who had plots, which produced bountiful harvests, who said their land had been taken from them. They said they know only how to live off the land and for them, working on a farm was better than being casual labour in a factory.

Padma Patil, a housewife who has taken part in the protests, said her family refused to sell their three acres. The government took the land anyway. The Patils’ plot provided the family with most of its rice and vegetables as well as income from jute sales.

“We have six children. Before none would go hungry. Now we can only manage one meal a day. If we try and go to our fields we get thrashed by the police,” she said. “We are not educated people. Our children are not literate. What are the jobs we would do? A gardener? A cleaner? Why would I want those? I used to own land.”

Such sentiments have formed the basis of the current blockade, championed by a local politician, Mamata Bannerjee, in a state where the Communist party of India (Marxist) has ruled for three decades.

She argues that land is being stolen from the poor to build cars for the rich. Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, made Bannerjee a national figure when he said he had considered calling the Nano “Despite Mamata”.

Bannerjee said she did not care what Ratan Tata called the car. “We say that 400 acres [162ha] should be returned to the farmers. That is our demand. We are not against industrialisation but we believe land has been stolen, their farms have been bulldozed. This is not our way. This is not an Indian way to industrialise.”

Switching from farms to factories has been a bloody process in West Bengal. Last year clashes between farmers and police in Nandigram left more than 30 people dead. In the end the state scrapped plans for a petrochemical plant spread over nearly 9 000ha.

Bannerjee, who protested against the Singur plant with a 26-day hunger strike two years ago, now brands the Communists as being in the pay of big business — in Kolkata, red hammer and sickle flags flutter above new housing developments and software parks. “The Communists are not for the common man. We are,” she said.

Bannerjee has demanded the company return 400 (162ha) acres that it “does not need” to the 2 000 farmers who refused to sell. The state government has offered 100 acres (about 40ha). Academics say that the problem for the Tata plant lies with the Communists’ attempt to jettison their historic antipathy to industrialists.

For more than two decades the party in West Bengal opposed computers and the spread of English because it would “spread capitalism and imperialism”. Instead they instituted a programme of land reform. This meant agriculture was much more important than in other parts of India: 70% of West Bengal’s population depends on farming, much higher than the national average of 52%.

“This leaves a huge problem of how to create space for industry. There’s no more land to give out,” said Abhirup Sarkar, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. “That is why we have had this rush to grab land for projects like the Nano. In the process the Communists face a backlash from their traditional voters in the villages.”–