September 3, 2008 / 10:26 AM / 10 years ago

Supporters, protesters clash over India's Nano car

KOLKATA, India, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Clashes broke out in eastern India on Wednesday between supporters and opponents of Tata Motor’s Nano, the world’s cheapest car, after the firm suspended work at the plant because of a land row.

The high-profile project in West Bengal state became embroiled in controversy after the local opposition party backed protests by some farmers against land seizures for the factory.

The dispute reflects a larger standoff between industry in India and farmers unwilling to part with land in a country where two-thirds of the billion-plus population depend on agriculture.

After weeks of protests and threats against workers, Tata Motors Ltd. (TAMO.BO) suspended work at the plant late on Tuesday despite investing $350 million, and said it was looking at alternative sites for the project [BOM258065].

The decision has sparked anger among supporters of the project, many of them members of the state’s ruling communist party or farmers who had got compensation or jobs at the factory.

Police said Nano supporters blocked traffic on a road leading to the factory in Singur, an hour’s drive from the capital Kolkata, and beat up activists of the opposition Trinamool Congress who had been protesting near the plant since last week.

“We had to use force to clear blockades by the pro-Tata supporters, mainly those associated with the project,” Raj Kanojia, a senior police official, told Reuters.

Mamata Banerjee, chief of Trinamool Congress, had offered talks to resolve the dispute just before Tata announced its decision.

“Having gone bankrupt politically, the communists are beating our people,” she said.

There is anger, too, among urban citizens who see the Trinamool protests as counterproductive to the state’s efforts to industrialise.

    Hundreds of IT workers and engineers marched in Kolkata, covering their mouths with black cloth and holding placards that read “Yes to Tata, No to Mamata”. The Nano project has been billed as key to the rejuvenation of industries in West Bengal, where the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government has changed tack after decades of focus on helping agriculture and poor farmers.

    But many farmers say they were forced off their land and offered paltry compensation to make way for the factory. Of 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of farmland seized for the factory, they are demanding the return of around 400 acres.

    Supporters of the car plant were also angered after news spread that a farmer who had given land for the project and whose sons had been offered jobs there had committed suicide.

    But police did not immediately link the death to the Tata decision to suspend work at the Nano factory in Singur.

    The prospect of talks had raised hopes that the 100,000 rupee ($2,250) car could roll out on time in October to coincide with the Indian festive season. (Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Simon Denyer and Paul Tait)

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