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Mamata Banerjee Versus Sajjan Jindal
“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.
Salboni villagers say that there was reluctance, even resistance, when they had to part with their land.
Of the 4,300 acres, 189 acres had to be secured from private owners. The remaining, after clearing dense jungle, had been acquired by an earlier government, led by Jyoti Basu, for an animal husbandry project. The villagers of Salboni now insist that contrary to the popular notion that they willingly parted with their land, there was reluctance, even resistance. Krishna Prasad Hansda (54) of Balibasha village, whose two acres are part of the factory site, says, “We did not want to give our lands, however little we may have earned from it. But we had to. When either side of your paddy field is surrounded by a factory, you cannot even enter your own patch of land, forget cultivating it. So we gave in.”
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