“"You cannot run a plant with police protection, you cannot run a plant when bombs are being thrown, you cannot run a plant when workers are being intimidated"
Ratan Tata, Kolkata, October 3, 2008
This is not an academic piece, but something I am writing based on my experiences of what I saw. I did not see the massive protests engineered by Mamta Banerjee and her cohorts – which surprisingly included the erudite and (I once thought) smart Derek O’Brein (If you are a industrial house, you might think about hiring him again - and given how RNT holds grudges, I doubt a Tata company will have him on their New Years cards list). I hope I’m proved wrong, but today’s announcement means that West Bengal has managed to shoot itself in the foot, actually shoot itself in both feet.
About six weeks ago, before the onset of Mamta Banerjee’s mad obsession to sit in Writers Building got the better of her, I went to the site of the now erstwhile Tata Nano plant in Singur. What I saw was a textbook example of a violent minority taking over the agenda. Listen, I am all for rabble-rousers, if we claim to be a vibrant democracy we need crackpots, because behind their ramblings and their incessant need to have television cameras pointing at them, they so make sense and they do stand up for people who may not have a voice otherwise. Yes, even Arundhati Roy, who makes me wince just as much as Sarah Palin makes others wince.
But Mamta had virtually no locus standi, because, and this bit is true, I will narrate a bit from my rather memorable meeting with Bacharam Manna, Mamta’s local leader at the site also the vice-chairperson the Singur Administrative Block. Now, I wish I could narrate this in my probashi Bangla, and even have Manna’s rustic accent, but you will have to imagine…
“So you will protest?”
“We will protest even if we have to celebrate Durga Puja on the highway.”
“But why protest? I’ve seen local Trinamool leaders support the project because they are making money through the ‘syndicate’?”
(Note: The ‘syndicate’, was a group of local men, mainly displaced farmers from Beraberi, the main panchayat impacted by the Nano project – 70 per cent of the land was from this village – who put together the funds from the land and started supplying the constructors of the Nano plant with construction equipment, even though it was often illegally mined sand and rocks. And as many of these guys told me, they made a killing, much more money than they ever would have from the land.)
“So what? We don’t want this kind of industry.”
“So you want this area to stay poor?”
“No we want industry.”
“Not this kind of industry, we want agricultural-led industry”
“What sort of agricultural industry, food processing?”
“There are a lot of potatoes that grow here, in Russia they make Vodka from potatoes, we will make Vodka!”
(Eiyekhane anok aloo hoye, tumi ki jano Russia te oora aloo theke Vodka banaye. Amaraoo eiyekhane Vodka banabo! – that is as good a transliteration I can make)
Now, this really happened.
I kid you not, this really happened. I know that journalists should rarely be trusted, but I’m not lying. I might lie about running late for meetings or to girls on why I stood them up, but that is a guy thing.
I have done some strange interviews in my career, and until August my strangest episode had been interviewing (hardly) Vijay Mallya in the Andaman Sea off Havelock Island (I mean ‘IN’ the sea with waves crashing around and various Swimsuit models skipping around) but as far as surreal sentences go, this one is one of them that really takes you aback (Ironic that I managed to bring up Vijay Mallya when I thought of Vodka – instant association). This is one of the answers that make you sit back on a ratty old chair and try and rummage your brain for a response.
And mine was…
“But nowadays most Vodka is made from grain…”
(Kintu aajkal beshibhag Vodka gom theke hoye – not exactly Katie Couric interviewing Sarah Palin)
“What are you saying?”
“But in Russia, they do it that way.”
“I don’t think they make too much Vodka from potatoes”
The next few minutes of the interview was on the relative merits of Vodka, where I couldn’t really argue. I mean, I like a good Vodka Martini just as much as the next bloke, well maybe not in this case, but sometimes you just get thrown a curveball. So, this guy actually suggested that the car be given up for booze, maybe there was some sense there – get smashed so you don’t need to go out in the first place. But then again we live in a country where there is still a ‘Directorate of Prohibition’, what can you say.
Back to the point, I really did meet many, many people who supported the project, and not on the main road, I bothered to drive through some really terrible roads and met villagers across the affected villages. Yes, occasionally you met people who did not support the project and wanted their land back.
While at least one anchor on television lamented the fate of Buddha, I think the arrogance of the Communists in power is responsible for the crisis. In most other states – just look at Tamil Nadu for an excellent example – antagonist political forces can align themselves to develop industry. The Indian Communist movement is marked by a disturbing streak of arrogance, and the refusal of the West Bengal government to involve the opposition from the very beginning meant that the project was going to face roadblocks.
Not that Mamta is any heroine – her primordial urge to win votes using the land bogey will boomerang, since Mamta’s vote-base is in the cities. Bengal needed investment and on the road past rajarhat in Kolkata you see some signs of progress, but if you look at Howrah from the Ghats near Vidyasagar Setu, you see an industrial wasteland, which is also the most tragic thing of taking the Rajdhani to Kolkata. Kolkata’s fate is almost as bad of the industrial towns in Northern England. The people just won’t stay, my ten year old cousin already knows he won’t live in Kolkata, my 16-year old sister is already plotting her escape. The tragedy with democracy, some say is that it gets you the politicians you deserve, sadly Bengal got idealistic thinkers and louts and not go-getters. No much people might celebrate Jyoti Basu, he was the worst thing to happen to Bengal ever, and it takes a lot to be considered worse than Mamta Banerjee.
But I really didn’t believe that the project would be derailed, and the ironic bit is in all probability the project will head over to a BJP-ruled state – Gujarat, Karnataka or Uttarakhand. I know that little factoid is incidental, but then again…