National Geographic : 2008 Oct
us! Where is your humanity?" she screamed hoarsely, to cheers from the hundreds of pro testers who followed her. Bare-chested teenage boys, stirred by her courage, dashed forward and threw rocks and bricks at the police, who batted them away with their shields. At a signal, the police front line began moving toward the demonstrators with their lathis raised, as others launched tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets at the farmers. In the clash that followed, dozens of protesters were injured, although the police likely restrained themselves because jour- off the dirt road of his village onto the footpath leading to the family's land, he was shocked to see that a cordon of police stood between him and the fields; behind them, workers were put ting up a barbed-wire fence. As he approached, the police raised their weapons and told him to go home. It was as if he'd been stripped naked, he says. "We are only farmers," he says sadly. "That's all I know how to do. I've been thinking lately of suicide." One of Kashinath's best friends, also a farmer, killed himself a few months ago. INTHE PAST TWO DECADES, THE NUMBER OF INDIANS LIVING BELOW THE POVERTY LEVEL HAS DROPPED DRAMATICALLY AN ACHIEVEMENT THAT GANDHI WOULD HAVE CELEBRATED. nalists were present. That night, after we left, the police returned in force, arresting the leaders of the protest, beating many more with their lathis. The state intelligence bureau called our guide and issued a warning: If we came back, we'd be questioned too. A few days later some of the protesters gath ered at a nearby farming village called Beraberi. A farmer named Kashinath Manna, 75, his eyes shining like a teenager's, spoke about the seven acres he and his two brothers had farmed since they were children, land they inherited from their father, and from his father before him. Their crops are irrigated from tube wells that the Indian government drilled during the agricultural green revolution of the 1960s to combat malnutrition and make India self sufficient. That well water, Kashinath says, was the magic ingredient; it unlocked the fertil ity in the soil to produce up to five harvests a year-of okra, beans, potatoes, hemp-a yield rich enough to support the extended family, 32 children and grandchildren, who depend on Kashinath and his brothers. "We produced so much that I had to use a bicycle rickshaw to haul it to market," he says. These days Kashinath can carry his crops to market in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. That's all he can grow on his share of a third of an acre of land, which is what the family has left now that Tata Motors is moving in next door. He will never forget the day they lost the rest. It was early morning, just after dawn, and as he turned 94 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2008 The government of West Bengal claims powers of acquisition under an 1894 law and maintains that most farmers in Singur willingly vacated their lands in return for compensation. That claim offends Kashinath. No farmer would voluntarily give up fertile land, he says. "And if we gave it willingly, why do they need to deploy the police against us? I'm not a criminal. I haven't done any harm to anyone in my life. But now I'm sick with worry. What will we eat? How will we live? What is the future of our children?" Anuradha Talwar of the West Bengal Agri cultural Workers Union says that "many farmers were intimidated by party workers into giving written consent for the occupation of their land," and that only about 60 percent of the land was lawfully transferred. To press the issue, her organization filed a lawsuit on behalf of the farmers, which is currently making its way through the courts. Across the country in his Mumbai office, Ravi Kant, managing director of Tata Motors, a revered Indian company with a record of social responsibility, admits that at Singur "there's room for improvement," but prefers to focus on the 2,000 jobs and various other economic advantages his factory on the Golden Quadri lateral will bring to the people of West Bengal, one of the least developed states in the coun try. "In the end, many more people will benefit from this project than be hurt by it," adds his colleague Debasis Ray, himself a native of West Bengal. "That's the nature of progress."