Bicycle rally at Hindmotor railway station against West Bengal govt apathy towards closed factories

Kolkata: On Friday, when almost all trade unions went on a nationwide strike, disrupting banking and transport services in some cities, a group of 150 young men and women gathered on bicycles at the Hindmotor railway station near Kolkata to take out a rally in protest against the West Bengal government’s apathy towards closed factories in the state.

It was a grim reminder of the erstwhile Left Front government’s appalling track record in resolving industrial disputes. According to the government’s own estimates, over 300 large factories are lying closed, locking up within their precincts at least 30,000 acres of unused industrial land, said Prasenjit Bose, a political activist who organised the bike rally.

“Why go after multicrop farmland such as in Singur to build new factories in West Bengal?” asked Bose, who was previously a top leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM. It’s a poignant question, coming only two days after the Supreme Court quashed the state’s acquisition of 997 acres, saying that the due process of law had not been followed.

The erstwhile political bosses of the state from the Left Parties such as former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and commerce and industries minister Nirupam Sen have always maintained that closed factories were inaccessible because they were encumbered by court cases.

“Agreed,” said Bose, “but if you have the political will, you can break the deadlock.” Instead, they went after agricultural land to which was yoked the livelihoods of thousands of families.

For chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is currently travelling in Europe, Singur was the starting point of a political turnaround. From an almost written-off opposition leader in 2006, she sprang back to end the Left Front’s 34-year unbroken rule in only five years, riding popular support for her anti-land acquisition campaign.

Holding back what she called “tears of happiness”, Banerjee on Wednesday said on hearing the apex court’s verdict on Singur that “she could now die in peace”.

The memory of the movement, which helped her rediscover her mojo, is to be perpetuated: Singur is to find a place in text books in West Bengal as a story of people’s rejection of an oppressive state, said Partha Chatterjee, the state’s education minister.

The Left Front stands decimated. With every passing election since the 2008 panchayat, or village council, polls, it has lost ground to the Trinamool Congress, and after Wednesday’s verdict on Singur, the schisms between the allies have further widened.

The push for setting up large factories originated from the CPM-led Left Front’s political conviction that children born in agrarian families were no longer keen to work on their farms, and that it was time for the state to emerge from its dark legacy of industrial unrest and lock-outs to create jobs in the manufacturing sector.

The approach it took was wrong, admit top CPM leaders, including former chief minister Bhattacharjee. Singur was the beginning of a downhill journey, and the verdict on it has only added insult to injury: in Banerjee’s own words, it was the Supreme Court’s seal of approval to people’s rejection of the Left Front’s policy.

“It was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Nirupam Sen who created opportunities for the Mamata Banerjee to turn things on their head, and she was quick to grab them,” said Kshiti Goswami, state secretary of the RSP in West Bengal. “We have always opposed their policy, and now the verdict has further distanced us from the people, but the CPM is still in denial.”

Since the apex court struck down the Singur land acquisition, Hafiz Alam Sairani, a key Forward Bloc member, has been seething with anger at the CPM. “They deceived us,” he said, referring to the CPM leadership in the state. “We were constantly told that the 1894 Act was the only available law to acquire land, and that it was being diligently followed. But now it is clear that we betrayed our followers.”

Economists agree that even 10 years ago, the state had to look for new employment opportunities, but they aren’t convinced that it did the right thing by uprooting agrarian families from their land.

Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute, said Singur would have benefitted only a section of the upwardly mobile middle class, while Dipankar Dasgupta, another economist, previously attached to the same institute, said “industry was perhaps not the right alternative back in 2006”.

It was too big a leap for farmers to cope with, according to Dasgupta, who said it is not unusual for farmers to seek alternative sources of income, given that land holdings in West Bengal are small.