In the week since protesters ringed Tata Motors' (TTM) Nano factory and blocked the highway (BusinessWeek.com, 8/27/08) leading up to it, the crowds have gone from upset and moody to angry and belligerent. On the night of Aug. 28, after it became clear the West Bengal government—which acquired nearly 1,000 acres for the factory—and the leaders of the protests were not going to sit down for talks, pockets of isolated violence broke out. Tata workers were yelled at, and buses carrying them out were ringed by thousands of protesters. On Aug. 29, Tata decided to stop work at the factory.
For now it isn't clear when the work will pick up again or when the protests will end. What is clear: The potential for a repeat of the widespread violence and armed police intervention that stalled work for weeks in 2007. Earlier this week, when I visited the site, angry protesters stoned the car that reporters were traveling in. By Friday the leaders of the protests were directing the crowd's anger at individual press organizations. Now the government has increased the police presence at the site, a local police official said at an Aug. 29 press conference.
Earlier in the week, it wasn't clear that things would get so out of hand. As I left Singur after a day of reporting, I heard the loud thunks of stones hitting metal as my driver sped away from the nearly 5,000-strong crowd outside Tata's factory. But the stoning seemed half-hearted—no more than seven or eight people were hurling rocks. I've seen worse, and after all, what's a good protest rally without a crowd throwing rocks at the press?
Singur: Ground Zero
It was a fitting soundtrack to a chaotic day. Over the weekend, nearly 40,000 protesters had laid siege to the highway leading to the factory two hours north of Kolkata. The plant was ringed by policemen in riot gear—some armed—facing farmers and others protesting the West Bengal government's decision to give 400 acres of land to Tata, in addition to 600 disputed acres it already had developed.
Getting to the town of Singur, which has become ground zero for India's battle against land acquisitions for industrialization (BusinessWeek, 8/27/08) (), was complicated. I flew out of New Delhi with a reporter for a French TV channel. We joined up with a BBC correspondent who had covered Singur when protests flared in 2007 and police violently held back crowds, injuring 33.
The first leg of the trip was easy.
Along the highway north of Kolkata, deserted by traffic and lined with policeman, at checkpoint after checkpoint we begged and pleaded to be let through as others were being turned back. The press stickers on the car helped, and so did the fact that I speak Bengali, the local language. But the policemen were surly, and every time a crowd of protesters would drive by in an open-top truck or on motorcycles, they clutched their batons a little tighter.
The atmosphere was surprisingly festive at Singur, where Mamata Banerjee, a leader for the Trinamool Congress, a breakaway faction of India's ruling Congress Party, was holding court. People had dragged their children along to listen to Banerjee's magnetic oratory. The crowds grew throughout the day, and riot police kept their distance. I found a farmer, Mahadev Das, willing to show me around, and hopped on the back of his motorcycle so he could drive me through what was left of his village. Far from the crowds, the loudspeakers fading into the distance, Das took a while to open up, but his anger was palpable, his grief obvious. He had never asked to sell his land, had never wanted to see his childhood countryside sullied by a car factory.
And yet here he was, standing at the edge of his house, staring at the fields inherited from his father, now on the other side of a large gray wall that protects Tata's $350 million investment.
Back at the protest sites, Banerjee had gotten the crowd worked up. A year ago she went on a 26-day hunger strike. Today she had been sitting outside the factory gates for almost four days and was visibly weak. But she seemed to take strength from the crowds, and from the constant flow of visitors—other local politicians, film stars, religious leaders—who supported her against the ruling Communist Party's decision to seize the land.
And what a circus it was— fruit sellers selling guava, tea sellers hawking little brown cups of the sticky sweet tea that Bengalis love, and even an entrepreneurial publisher who was selling a 4-page sheet of protest coverage, printed on his own Xerox machine. Crowds of young men shouted along with Banerjee, rushing the stage where she stood in their excitement.
Three Hours in the Sun
Politicians at protest rallies often have love-hate relationships with the press. They see us as arms of the corporations or government they are fighting and so ignore us, but then, after we cajole and beg for a chance to speak, they agree, knowing that 10 minutes with us means millions of people will get to hear their voice. Banerjee was no different, asking us to wait almost three hours in the sun. Finally, she allowed three of us onto the stage, and jumped into a 10-minute soliloquy interrupted only by my attempts to ask her questions. Finally, when I asked: "But what about the jobs and opportunities that this kind of industrialization can bring?" she glared angrily at me and asked, "Do you work for Tata? Is that why you are asking these questions?"
I was quickly ushered off the stage. The buzz went through the crowd that the reporters had upset Banerjee. We walked quickly to our car and jumped in. That's when the rocks started hitting it. Foot to the pedal, we zoomed off. But a little while later, the car stalled. A bouncing rock had hit the bottom of the engine, and with a thud, the car stopped.
A deadline loomed, and a passerby offered me a ride. Singur faded into the distance, but I couldn't help wondering when I would have to come back.