Singur – ways of life, before and after

December 4, 2007

By Kuver Sinha, Sanhati. Translated from a Manthan fact-finding report, August 2007

This article describes the way of life in Dobadi, a village of Khetmajoors (agricultural workers) in Singur. It tells the story of things as they were then, and as they are now. It is told at the personal level, from the microscopic changes that life has undergone under the dictates of over-arching political forces. It describes, for example, how Sankar Das, the man who died of starvation recently, might have lived and ended. Or why Prasanta Das of Khasherbheri may have killed himself.

Dobadi before Tata’s fences came up

Dobadi is home to the Bauri community, apart from a single family of Bagdi (BargaKshatriya), who came to Dobadi around fifteen years ago from Dharapara, on the other side of the Julkia canal. Amongst the Bauris, there are families with various surnames – Patra, Maitri, Das Khamaru, Hajari, Kotal, Bagal, Malik, Boiragi, Sardar, Dheebor, and Digor. These families freely inter-marry, dine together, and in general live in complete harmony.

There are ninety families, all dependent either on farming or on agricultural work. With the exception of one or two, none of them have owned land at any point of time. In fact, with the exception of one family, there isn’t even a Recorded Bargadar in the entire village.

A primary school has been built in the village with the help of Belur Ramkrishna Mission. Children study there, up to the first few grades. As soon as they grow a bit older, they start working on adjacent fields.

All adults in a family, both male and female, work in the fields. In a way, one can say that life in Dobadi centers around field work. The village has a total of ninety houses. All except perhaps two or three are earthen huts, their roofs thatched with tiles or hay. Rows of such houses stand beside a trail. During monsoon, when the rains come pouring down, the trail gets so muddy that it becomes difficult to walk on.

One of the bigger houses is a three-storied cement house belonging to Kanai Sardar. He is a sharecropper. He has three sons, two of whom have been working in Nainital as gold polishers. He is an exception – it isn’t common for Dobadi’s residents to look for work outside.

The other big house belongs to Simanto Patra. He even owns a car. It is obvious that his family are the well-to-do in the village.

We spoke to a woman called Bijoya Patra, whose husband died ten years ago. Here’s her story:

You see, our family has many members, and so I didn’t work for the first few years after my marriage. Why not? Because someone had to stay behind to cook and take care of things. My husband’s siblings were very young, and I took care of them too. Everybody else worked in the fields – my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my husband and others. There were eighteen members in our family.

I stayed home for around three years, and after that I started working. We used to work around here, inside the area now sealed off by the fences. I used to work for six rupees a Roj. But I wasn’t as poor then as I am now. Now, even though I get fifty rupees a Roj, it is difficult to make ends meet. Wages for agricultural labourers has not increased due to any political movement, rather it has happened naturally. When work increased, wages increased steadily year after year. The price of rice, lentils, and vegetables went up, and correspondingly our wages went from Rs.6 to Rs.10, and then Rs.15, and so on. An yearly increase of Rs.5 has finally put the figure at Rs.50.

Before, there was work available in the fields for 8-10 months a year. For example, December was a full working month, and in January we would get work for 10-15 days. Not more. Between February and March, once the off-season Boro crop was sown, we would get work for about a month. Around April, we would get 8-10 days of work cutting and cleaning, and this would continue till June. There isn’t much work in July, maybe four or five days. We don’t really count that…it’s too little to count. In August we get substantial work.

Our children really didn’t have any other avenues of employment around here. My husband died. So I asked myself – what should I do now? I have to raise my children. I had a girl, and I had to get her married. My husband’s elder brother – Barda – he makes fishing rods from bamboo – so I learnt from him. I had to feed my children. So I tried and tried, and finally got the hang of it. Then I started fishing, and sold my fish at the nearby Beraberi bazaar. Somedays one kilogram of fish, somedays a half. Whatever you took to Beraberi bazaar, you could get it sold. Catch two fish, get a few snails, perhaps some spinach from the field – take it over there and you could sell it. And you could survive like this when there was no work in the fields. Like in September and October. But the worst lies in store when November comes. At least in October you can get snails. In November, you can’t get anything. The canal dries up. People borrow a lot, it is very hard. The Sahas lend money. We have to pay interest, and sometimes hock our belongings. And then when we get work in the fields again, we pay them back and get our things back…

This was what life was like, had been like for a long time, before the fences came up. Bijoya Patra’s story is typical.

Dobadi’s residents were engaged in farm work for 8-10 months a year. The Julkia canal was their main source of sustenance for the rest of the year. They would survive by fishing. You could see people weaving nets, making fishing equipment from bamboo shoots, preparing for those months. This was never enough though – most families would get into debt during the off-season. But then again, if all went well and there was a lot of farm work, sometimes they would save a little. It would go to the post office or the nearby Allahabad Bank branch.

Families would also rear goats, ducks, and chickens. These would help out when times got bad. During emergencies, marriages, and other exceptional circumstances when lots of money was needed suddenly, the animals would be sold.

So as we see – every family in Dobadi has at least two or more agricultural labourers (Khetmajoor). Young men sometimes drove tillers (small tractors) on the owner’s land, and earned good money that way. And apart from this, there were around ten cycle vans. Some people would make a living by driving them.

Some agricultural labourers would rent land from the owner and farm there themselves. This wasn’t really available during the Aman season, but during Boro, before paddy was planted, land would become available for farming. Most of the land belonged to the Baruis, Sahas, and the Ghoshs. These owners would lease out land by rotation, usually not employing the same person continuously.

The biggest festival in Dobadi is Mansha Puja. This is celebrated collectively every year, with much fun and fanfare. Another community effort is the club – the Manshamata Club. Sankar Das, the youth who died of starvation recently, was an important member of this club.

The club used to have lots of funds. It would help out Dobadi’s residents in times of emergency – marriages, illnesses, etc. Funds would be raised by people working together, by selling rice or fish.

Inside the village is a large pond. Bodyinath Gomosta and Purna Gomasta used to own this. But then, as their family spread and differentiated, it became unclear who the owner was. Now club members raise fish in the pond. And fish sold from this pond has been used to make a room at the club, for example.

At one time the Forward Bloc (a member of the Left Front alliance) had some influence in Dobadi. Ram Chatterjee, a leader of the Forward Bloc, used to go there regularly. After he died, his nephew Joy Chatterjee kept up the work. Now, of course, it is the Trinamul Congress that is most powerful there.

Bharati Das, an agricultural laborer, is the local midwife. She does this from an altruistic viewpoint and not for money. When complications arise, she sends the patient to Singur Hospital. The local exorcist is the elderly Suryakanta Maitry.

Dobadi after the fences came up

It has been eleven months since Dobadi fell into a state of disarray and destitution, say the villagers.

First they made a perimeter with wooden stumps and barbed wire. Then they put up a more permanent wall made of bricks. The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) did a very efficient construction job for the Tatas at Dobadi. Much of the land around which the village had defined itself went behind the fences, untouchable and alien. The first rays of sunlight no longer revealed to the drowsy eye a green expanse stretching out far into the horizon, lush with crops and the promise of security. Instead one perceived with terror unyielding fences, as certain as a jailhouse, as inexorable as an executioner.

It’s now August. Amidst the torrential rain, it is now time for the women to plant seeds in the paddy fields. The fields have been fenced off for the car factory – one can see preparations for that on the other side. Dobadi’s women are walking down the Durgapur highway. Their faces are drawn – they hold back tears of anger and impotence. It is more than an hour’s walk to the fields, at the crack of dawn. Durgapur Expressway, stretching off to dreams of development. On the other side – the fields of Niler Par, Paton, Pairaora, Choukhondipota, Baburbheri. The women scour the fields looking for work. If they get work, it’s forty rupees a Roj now. Twenty eight seeds planted make one Roj, and on the average one and a half Roj can be done in a day.

Even last year, one could step out from one’s home and find lots of work. One could make anywhere between Rs. 70 to Rs. 150 a day at this time of the year. It’s different now. They’ll find work for seven days, maybe ten. And then nothing.

The men are unemployed for the large part. Sometimes they find some little work far away, maybe driving tractors. The cycle vans which had provided employment are now sitting at home, rotting away. Or they’re being sold off at low prices as people struggle to keep the wolf from the door. Bimala Khamaru and Sankar Das have starved to death. Let’s hear from Bijoya Patra again.

My son Goutam married two years ago. They had a baby. After Tata happened, his wife refused to live here amidst the turmoil and uncertainty. Her folks live in Howrah. So that’s where she went with the baby. She was too terrified to live here. The baby was a year old – it got sick and died. We went many times to persuade her to come back. All she said was that if her husband was willing to settle in Howrah, it would work out. The baby had pneumonia.

Stories of disruption and rupture abound in Dobadi. Agricultural work has come to a standstill. Cycle van drivers are out of work because there is no vegetable to carry. Three hundred people have nothing to fall back on.

Some people in Singur had been sent for technical training to work in Tata’s factory. Not one of them was from Dobadi. Of the three hundred workers in Dobadi, only one is working with the Tatas and the WBIDC in any capacity at all – from guarding fences to digging. A few others had been called, but they refused to work for the same people who had robbed the overwhelming majority of their livelihoods.

People are hungry and they are sinking into debt. When they got into debt before, it was at least with the owners of the land they worked on – it was more of an advance. That option isn’t open anymore. So they’re hocking their belongings and borrowing at high interests. Metal utensils and jewelry are being taken over to the Sahas. Gold fetches an interest of 3% a month, silver 10%.

Young men have started leaving the village in search of work. They aren’t used to this, and in any case it is very difficult to find work. Whatever they do find is irregular and uncertain, and the corresponding wages are lower than before. Dobadi, more than any other part of Singur, had been dependent on land. Especially the Bauri women of this village, who had been involved in all aspects of agricultural work. Thus, every family has been hit by the crisis. The crisis has trickled down to every aspect of social life here. One needs only to enter the homes to know this.

The women return home late in the afternoon, after planting seeds in a field far away. Towards the evening they may cook some rice, if there is any. Many families are eating one meal a day. Ration rice which costs Rs. 7 a kilogram is selling in the black market for Rs. 11. That’s what the villagers are buying somehow. When they have nothing left, they get some relief from the Krishi Jomi Raksha Committee. But relief food cannot sustain a family. Rumors are spreading that land outside the fence is being sold off at high prices. The village is caught in a nightmare from which there is no escape.

The option of NREGA has arrived to Dobadi, with its promise of a hundred days of work and its job cards. Some forty people were sent to work under this scheme. They’ve worked for 5-6 days. The Forestry Department has ordered them to cut out weeds and plant trees. The work: six people have to clear 500 feet a day, dig a hole one and a half feet deep there, plant a hundred trees, and water them. All in a day’s work. Those who went have said that this is impossible for a team of six. In any case, not a single one of them has been paid for their labor till now. Panchayet members aren’t available. The Panchayet Pradhan doesn’t care about what they say or whether they speak at all.

Conclusion: Land acquisition and the people for whom it spells death

Dobadi’s residents settled down a few generations ago, and have been tied to the land. To tell the truth, they’ve never been that well off. But Singur as a whole has developed a lot – from plentiful harvests, milking cows and ancillary businesses. This had reflected on the lot of Dobadi’s residents. Working for hire in the fields, they’re almost like family to Singur’s farmers. In some seasons, they have farmed themselves. Not the seasonal rice, but at least the off-season harvest of potatoes, vegetables, and other crops. And that has been the source of what little development they have achieved.

They never got to farm for the same owner year after year. And that is why, excepting one or two people, none of them is a recorded bargadar.

Dobadi and Ruidaspara present contrasting pictures. Both are villages of the landless in Singur. Dobadi is completely dependent on agriculture. Ruidaspara is not. The Bauris of Dobadi, and the Charmakars of Ruidaspara have different social, caste, and hence professional histories.

Dobadi has been very involved in the struggle precisely because of its dependence. Ruidaspara, on the other hand, have at least given a hearing to the Tatas and the government. The political realities of the two villages match these social differences.

Society is never static…as social relations are torn asunder, people find new ways of surviving. Thus, we have seen Dobadi’s women start off on alternate avenues. Sanaka Patra’s little girl has started saree embroidery. Every saree fetches her Rs. 50. Or, for example, in Madhyapara, we have seen a few youths learning the trade of weaving beads into necklaces. Having been kicked off the land, a few are possibly working as security men near Tata’s fences or elsewhere, and a few have probably taken off for other states, in search of a future.

The blow has come like a sledgehammer from outside their society, disrupting their lives, tearing apart families, forcing them into alternate, tortuous modes of survival. This change isn’t internal – it has engulfed them like a plague, from the outside.

Dobadi’s van driver Bilu Moitri expressed the anguish of a fast-disappearing world:

There were many of us, the van drivers! Eight or ten in Dobadi, like a group. Around three are left now…the rest were sold off. No work in the fields. Sometimes the shops give them work. Sometimes.

Well…what I used to get by on isn’t there anymore. So I really have nothing to do. It’s been over a year…getting into debt, hocking things. I had five cows…had to sell them off. Have one left…

Have a look for yourself – it’s three in the afternoon, and we’ve just put in some rice and potatoes. Never had to suffer this much.

When the parties talk now, they don’t talk about us anymore…if people can’t eat, there’ll be thieving and robbing, murder and mayhem…

Dobadi’s workers have joined the resistance with the same farmers with whom they have worked for so long. After Tata’s fences went up, they endured poverty and hardship. They went without food, but they did not lose their dignity. None of them accepted Tata’s work.

Inspite of being a force in the resistance, Dobadi has never been a front-runner. When the resistance had peaked, we had heard that Bauripara’s youths had started arming themselves with sticks. It was the leadership that told them to disarm. Even now Dobadi’s women say “We were fighting for them”. “Them” is the farmer, the farmer who didn’t give land, the farmer who refused the government’s compensation. Dobadi’s agricultural workers had clung on to these farmers, not taking the leadership into their own hands, not making an organization of their own or articulating their own demands.

Dobadi’s people have been ruined – they belong neither here nor there. They are not recognized as farmers, and yet they have been involved in farming for generations. A child growing up in Dobadi would see his father, mother, uncls, aunts, sisters, brothers, all working in the fields. And that’s where he would start working as soon as he was old enough. He learnt nothing else – Singur’s plentiful harvest never forced him to.

Dobadi’s women get up at dawn, and begin their long trek towards an uncertain day. The government’s land acquisition has begun to push them out, uproot them. And with them all the Khetmajoors, who are being pushed towards a loss that they’ll never make up. How is it possible to combat this? What is the way of salvation? Questions like these are the way of life in Dobadi…