“I get the feeling that something is being hidden from us. Do you know what it is?” Krishna Chandra Hansda asks, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. The 80-year-old farmer is squatting on the ground outside his crumbling mud hut in Salboni in West Bengal’s West Midnapore District. “We are getting impatient. They told us that if we give up our land, they would build a factory in this area where my three sons would get jobs,” he says. “But all of them are unemployed now. I regret letting them take over the two acres I owned. I cultivated paddy and potatoes. It didn’t pay well, but it was a livelihood. Now I feel that the factory will never come up.”
Hansda’s hunch may not be far off the mark. In 2007, one of India’s largest private sector steel companies, the Sajjan Jindal-run Jindal Steel Works, entered into an agreement with the then West Bengal government to construct two mega projects in the area: a 10-million-tonne steel factory and a 1,600 MW power plant. But seven years later, all that has come up in the vast 4,300-acre stretch fenced off by a towering brick and cement wall with meshed-iron is a tiny, manicured garden overgrown with ivy and other foliage, housing the foundation stone that was laid in 2008.
Will the factory ever really come up, ask the villagers. The two parties responsible for seeing the project through—JSW and the Bengal government—are now locked in a battle over exactly who is going to take the projects forward, if at all. The state government has given the company an ultimatum—act, or else the land will be taken back. JSW claims that the state government is doing nothing to make it possible for it to start work, including not helping it procure iron ore, the raw material for manufacturing steel.
Outlook took the villagers’ concerns to JSW officials, who failed to respond to a set of questions. There was silence from the state government too. It’s a prickly subject, given Ratan Tata’s recent attack on Bengal’s industrial policy. But it’s clear that Salboni is turning out to be CM Mamata Banerjee’s Singur (the symbol of the Left Front government’s failures).
It all started in 2006, a year before JSW thought of setting up shop in West Bengal. “Immediately after assuming power for the second term, then Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya went on an industrialise-Bengal drive. The JSW plant was among his three high-profile projects, including the Tata Motors Nano factory in Singur and a chemical hub in Nandigram,” explains an official of the former industry ministry. The then Opposition, led by Mamata stirred up an agitation of local people, driving the Nandigram and Singur projects away. But in Salboni, land acquisition had been completed without bloodshed.
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
In fact, according to West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation officials, when land was taken over by JSW, it had not yet obtained the requisite permissions, so the government annexed the land summarily in order to be able to lease it to the company.
So what caused JSW to drag its feet and not initiate work? The immediate provocation to halt work was the Maoist threat in the area of West Midnapore district near Jangalmahal. For proof, consider the inauguration of the Salboni plant on November 2, 2008. As the convoys of Buddhadeb and then Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan headed back to Calcutta, they narrowly missed two landmine explosions—an incident which was taken as proof of the area being under rebel control. “The threat involved in setting up business in the midst of a Maoist-affected area was a powerful deterrent,” a JSW official confided on condition of anonymity.
But other problems continued to plague the JSW-state government contract (see box), snowballing over the last seven years into an impasse of such a proportion that it has now turned into an acrimonious conflict threatening to plunge the project into an uncertain future. The villagers are in the dark and can only speculate. “There are rumours that the project will be a no-show. We don’t know what to do,” says Parmuni Hansda, wife of Krishna Chandra. “How can the company do this to us? And what about the state government?” Local villagers and tribal folk who have lost land are beginning to doubt if the factory will materialise at all. That’s why there’s a uniform demand echoing through the villages of Salboni: “Please don’t keep us in the dark. Tell us the truth.”
By Dola Mitra in Salboni
The story on the stuck Jindal project in West Bengal (Storm Over Steel, Sep 1) was familiar reading. It shows the industrial climate of Bengal, which vitiated during the long Left rule, has failed to pick up under tmc. The jute industry, which employs around 75,000 people, is finding it hard to survive. Ditto with the tea industry. Incidents like the one in which a senior jute mill executive was beaten to death only send a horrible signal. And the Coal India plant at Jhanjhra stopped production as workers were protesting the introduction of a biometric attendance system aimed at weeding out bogus attendance. According to reports, over 90 industrial units have closed down, rendering thousands of workers jobless. Mamata has won a huge mandate; she must encourage industrial development.
M.M. Gurbaxani, Bangalore
Well, Bengal might be staggering under the continued flight of industry from the state, but, on an aside, I was aghast at seeing the latest advertisement of the department of tourism of West Bengal. Created on the theme of Durga Puja to attract tourism, the main picture in the ad shows an unfinished idol of Durga, in mud and clay, sans any clothes! Does the tourism department want to send out the message across that the state is so poor that it can’t even dress Ma Durga?
Sanjay Kapoor, Delhi
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Two points, one specific to this column, the other generic. 2. The world has changed since 2008 and the commodities cycle has turned. The industrial landscape is littered with projects that will likely not be completed, because they are no longer viable, or commissioned even after completion because, say, gas is not available as fuel for a power plant. The collateral damage is huge sums of money lent by public sector banks, which will turn into NPAs. 2. The new land acquisition law is dead in the water. Private industry will have to be told to catch its own fish, with government authorities, at best, facilitating the transaction. There is a lot of wasteland. Even if its location is far from ideal, it will have to be used for industry, even future urbanisation. There are a hundred smart cities waiting to be built. India will be unable to spare rich, three crops a year land for non agricultural use for very much longer.
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