Of gumboots and snakes, tall grass and a deadline

Hundreds of men are on the job to return nearly 1,000 acres to 2,000 claimants. A jungle lies in the middle, Baidya admits, but says September 14 date important as it is linked to “people’s dreams”

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Updated: September 11, 2016 6:16 am
singur-759 Milan Baidya (centre) is among a hundred officials and 700-odd daily wage labourers who are working to survey the land. Express Photo by Partha Paul

It’s around noon. The rain has finally stopped, and Milan Baidya gets ready to set out to work again. The 43-year-old technical staff member has been with the West Bengal Land and Land Revenue Department since he was very young. So the work isn’t new. But this time, things are different. “It’s the time-frame, it’s frantic,” Baidya sighs. Looking down at his feet, he adds, “At least we now have gumboots.”

Standing at the edge of what was land earmarked for the Tata Singur project, it is easy to see why the boots matter. Spread across 997 acres, the land once epitomised the dream of a state. Now it is part-swamp, part impenetrable grassland, housing a crumbling factory that never saw any operations — a portrait of a dream deferred.

On August 31, the Supreme Court quashed the acquisition of this land in 2006 by the Left Front regime in West Bengal for a Tata Motors plant. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose rise to power was partly propelled by the protests she led of farmers here who lost their land, wants the land surveyed by September 14, so that the process of returning plots to respective owners can begin soon. Mamata is planning a rally at Singur that day, to mark the apex court upholding her stand.

It’s easier said than done.

Baidya lists the challenges he and at least a few hundred other officials, ranging from Additional District Magistrate Land Revenue P Maji to non-technical staff, face. “In the past 10 years, the fields here have been untended. In most areas, there would be a lot of vegetation by now. This is very fertile land and it means this is now a forest. The place is also full of snakes. The gumboots are for them. We can brave the rain, but not the snakes.”

Carbolic acid had been poured into the grass to scare the snakes, he adds, but all it had done was chase them away from one end of the land to the other.

The nearly thousand acres in contention at Singur had more than 2,000 owners at the time of acquisition. Baidya and others are tasked with returning this carrying a Revenue Department map, wooden stakes to mark out ownership, and the faithful gumboots. This, while taking into account that the ownership of land itself in southern Bengal is typically fractured, with individuals owning islands of land within larger tracts owned by others.

Baidya’s day starts at 6 am. The abandoned factory has been transformed into temporary barracks for the officials, with some mattresses, covers and thin pillows. Baidya doesn’t mind the accommodation, only wishes it had been given “a little airing”.

Lunch is generally rice and fish or egg, while breakfast and ‘evening tiffin’ have bread and egg, supplemented with pale, sugary tea. Apart from the transformer that the government had set up before 2011 for the Tata factory, a temporary generator has been provided to ensure continuous supply of electricity. Water tankers have been brought in from the district headquarters at Hooghly.

Elaborating on the task at hand, Baidya says, “If the land was level, the work could have been done in a week. But now, first, the land must be cleared of vegetation. Then, it must be surveyed, and finally ownership recorded and marked. Right now even the first stage is an issue.”

Almost 3 ft of fly ash had been dumped on the site by Tata Motors to raise the land level. While this has damaged the top soil, making the future of cultivation bleak, it has also made it impossible to work with the heavy harvester machines that the state government dispatched to speed up work.

Haradhan Majhi, a farmer and one of the daily-wage labourers employed to operate the harvesters, walks tentatively through the tall grass, towards Baidya. Majhi doesn’t have gumboots. “The harvester is stuck,” he tells Baidya. “Someone needs to come and dig around the wheels to get it moving again.”

One of the 700-odd daily wage labourers working here, Majhi is getting around Rs 200 per day apart from food for the job.

Before Majhi starts walking back, Baidya takes off his own gumboots and offers them. While the government has announced that gumboots, gloves and caps would be provided to all workers, there still aren’t enough to go around. “We need to share. This entire work is a long process of sharing,” Baidya rationalises.

Work goes on from 6 am to 6 pm. Vegetation is chopped, maps are pored over, land marks, buried deep under, are identified and finally, a stake with a piece of paper and number is stuck into the ground. The stake, itself, is unimpressive. But with their task akin to fitting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the sight is thrilling, says an official.

After work, Baidya and the others exchange stories sitting at the factory. Talk turns to children, growing expenses, and politics. But, most conversations, Baidya says, are about two things — home and land.

The 43-year-old understands both. His village Beraberi is not far, and he lives there with his wife and two children. He is the first in his farming family to have a government job.

“Nothing is more important for the people here than land,” Baidya adds. “I was a staunch supporter of the Left before Singur happened. But I couldn’t rationalise the way land was snatched away. If I supported them for their land reforms, then today I support Mamata Banerjee for her Singur protest, which is why the work here is so important.”

At the same time, Baidya underlines the dilemma of parents like him. Giving the example of Majhi, he says, “Majhi had land here. I also know he wants industry here. He wants his children to not work in the mud and to have proper jobs. Can you blame him?”

Baidya himself doesn’t see a life in either government offices or fields for his two children — a 12-year-old boy “who hates studying”, and a 16-year-old girl “who is at the top of her class”. He hopes they will find work in Kolkata, “in private offices, where there are increments and less politics”.

The other topic that looms in every conversation is Mamata’s deadline. A podium being erected in the eastern corner of the land for the CM’s rally is a constant reminder.

“If you don’t finish the work, Mamata Banerjee will berate you publicly. Which is why everyone is working so hard,” Baidya chuckles, before adding, “As am I.”

But, unlike the others who say it is “impossible” to finish by September 14 or by even the Supreme Court stipulated time of 12 weeks, Baidya remains hopeful. “Everyone knows land is the dream of all those who’ve lived here and are working here.”

Somewhere in the background, the harvester is still spluttering desperately in the mud. And the rain has started again.

So what happens to a dream deferred? In the case of Singur, nature reclaims it violently.