Trinamool Congress siege halts Nano factory work

August 31st, 2008 - 1:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, Aug 31 (IANS) One week on, the Trinamool Congress-led indefinite siege in Singur has crippled Tata Motors’ bid to roll out the world’s cheapest car Nano from West Bengal, besides choking a key highway.The Nano project seems to be caught in the political crossfire between the state’s ruling Left Front and the opposition, with work in the factory suspended Friday and Saturday by the company.

“The conditions are still not conducive for resuming work. We continue to assess the situation closely,” Tata Motors said in a statement Saturday, as the company’s October deadline for rolling out the globe’s smallest car neared.

Though the protesters have publicly maintained they would not go beyond peaceful protests, the company has complained that factory workers and contractual labourers were being threatened and manhandled.

The situation took a turn for the worse Thursday when more then 600 Tata Motors engineers and executives remained trapped for three hours inside the factory as a farmers’ body started a cultural programme and squatted on the Durgapur Expressway near the factory gate.

But notwithstanding criticism from industrialists and chambers of commerce, Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee has stuck to her demand that the state government return 400 acres of farmland acquired for the plant from “unwilling farmers” in Singur - about 40 km from Kolkata.

Banerjee has refused to buckle despite threats from none other than Tata group chairman Ratan Tata that the company could consider pulling out of West Bengal if the crippling protests continued unabated.

The Nano, priced at Rs.100,000 ($2,300), is scheduled to roll out from the Tata Motors’ stable in October.

The continuing unrest in front the Tata Motors plant has raised eyebrows among the business fraternity across the country. Several state governments seem to be vying with each other to offer a red carpet welcome to the automobile major if it shifts the project.

“The Tatas pulling out of West Bengal would be unfortunate for India. Nano is seen as a world car and has drawn international acclaim. Immediate political dialogue to find a solution towards keeping the project in West Bengal is imperative,” said Bharti Group chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Sunil Bharti Mittal, expressing concern over the stalemate.

He said: “If the house of Tatas, known for its values and care for the society, can face such resistance, the much needed fresh wave of industrialization in the country could suffer.”

Much to the consternation of the industrial lobby, the movement seems to be snowballing with the Samajwadi Party, social activist Medha Patkar, former Congress leader Somen Mitra and various Maoist factions joining Banerjee in the protests that began Aug 24.

The demonstrators have set up 21 camps around the factory site. The 400 acres in question were earmarked for ancillary industries adjacent to the mother plant.

A total of 997.11 acres were acquired for the Tata Motors Nano project, of which 691.66 acres were given away by farmers willingly for a financial package.

Tata Motors took up the project to build the small car factory in Singur two years back. Since then there has been resistance from sections of the farmers and political parties over the farmland acquisition.

The anti-farmland acquisition movement reflects a larger stand-off between the state government and the Trinamool Congress ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

Emboldened by its recent poll successes in the state, the Trinamool is trying to consolidate the gains it has made in rural areas - not so long ago strongholds of the Leftists - by cashing in on the reluctance among a section of farmers to part with land in a country where two-thirds of the billion-plus population depend on agriculture.

And so far there are little signs of the stalemate ending. While Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has invited Banerjee for talks, he has ruled out returning 400 acres of land, saying it would make the project unviable.

With the 76-km long Durgapur Expressway - a part of the National Highway-2 connecting Kolkata and Delhi - blocked due to the siege, supplies to the city have been hit, as hundreds of trucks remain stranded for days.

The vexed issue has also reached the legal corridors.

A public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Calcutta High Court Thursday seeking immediate clearing of the expressway and National Highway (NH)-2 saw a division bench - comprising Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice Dipankar Dutta declining to pass any order before hearing the matter.

They have directed the West Bengal government and the petitioner to file affidavits stating their positions.

Hearing a separate petition moved by the Calcutta Goods Transport Association, the court asked the National Highway Authority of India to ensure smooth passage of vehicles through the expressway.

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