02/02/2007, 00.00
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More than 14,000 farmers expelled from their land to give way to a car plant

The Communist-led government of West Bengal is using an 1894 colonial-era law to seize farmland. Many farmers have protested and demonstrations have turned into clashes with police. Tata Motors wants to manufacture the world's cheapest car.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than 14,000 farmers are being thrown off their land in Singur, just outside the West Bengal capital of Kolkata, to give way to a car plant. Many are protesting because they do not know where they will live but they are readying themselves to resist the state government and India’s largest company. Their fight is over nearly 1,000 acres of farmland, which have been fenced off; well-irrigated fields that yielded rice, mustard and potatoes located near the state’s best highway.

Tata Motors, a unit of Indian conglomerate Tata Group, started work last week on a factory which promises to employ 10,000 people and produce the world's cheapest car, for less than 100,000 rupees (US,200).

“This plant is special, one of a kind,” said Industries Secretary Sabyasachi Sen. But it is being built without public consultation. The government has in fact dusted off an 1894 colonial-era land law to achieve its goal.

Protests by farmers have turned into violent clashes with police, and the controversy has made national headlines and become political.

“We are not against industry, we need more of it,” said opposition leader Mamata Banerjee, vowing a showdown. “But they should use non-agricultural land.”

For the government, the problem is that there is not much of that on the fertile plains of Bengal, especially not in such a prime location. Furthermore, the government claims that the Singur land is not particularly good, mostly supporting just one crop a year.

Tell that to Haradhan Adak, a 62-year-old farmer looking out at a potato field. “This is the third crop this season and we will get two more,” he said.

Many farmers took the cash. Others sold because they have been promised factory jobs, or because they saw no point in holding out, explained Fatima Begum.

Farmers know however that the money will not last forever. “You have marriages, illnesses, the money will just drain away,” Anil Shantra said. “What do we do then?”

What is more, “people have been intimidated by party workers,” Shantra explained. “They brought out a list of people who agreed to sell, but somebody else signed on my behalf.” Most people have been tilling this land for generations.

In 2005-06, Tata Group revenues topped INR 968 billion, which is equal to US$ 21.9 billion, or about 2.8 per cent of India's GDP.

On Wednesday, another Tata Group company, Tata Steel, announced it had become the world's fifth biggest steelmaker by swallowing the Anglo-Dutch Corus Group for US$ 12.2 billion.

Tata Motors, which has a good reputation for corporate responsibility, promised to employ 10,000 people. It has already started job training scores of men but many farmers do not want to give up their way of life even it they do not really know how they can stop what is happening.

They continue to protest in front of the plant’s construction site hoping they will not be forgotten. (PB)

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