Renewed protests threaten to delay Nano India launch

SINGUR, India (Reuters) - Violent protests and political opposition against land seizures for a Tata Motors TAMO.BOTTM.N factory in eastern India threaten to delay the long-awaited launch of the Nano, hailed as the world's cheapest car.

A Tata Nano is displayed during the second media day of the 78th Geneva Car Show at the Palexpo in Geneva March 5, 2008. This picture was taken with a long exposure. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The grandiose unveiling in January of the 100,000-rupee ($2,380) snub-nosed Nano was greeted by ecstatic press coverage. The reception around the Tata factory in Singur in West Bengal has been less enthusiastic.

“We will try to break the factory wall ... as many times as we can,” said Toofan Ruidas, a farmer, as he pointed at pockmarks left in the wall by his fellow protesters’ axes.

Beyond the boundary wall, giant blue and white sheds of the project now dominate the skyline of Singur.

West Bengal’s communist government took about 1,000 acres of farmers’ land for the factory. The state offered compensation in return, but some complained they did not receive their dues.

Others refused to obey the state and are declining compensation, many of them farmers with smaller land holdings.

In all, around 400 acres of seized land are still being fiercely disputed, threatening the planned October launch of the Nano, which is timed to coincide with India’s festival season.

“We are not against industrialization or Tata, we only want back the 400 acres acquired from us forcibly,” said Laxman Das, an elderly farmer who lost his land and refused compensation.

“We will not budge till we see an end to it. I am still holding out. I am ready to face death to get back my land.”


Tata is one of several companies facing resistance as industry hunts for land in this crowded, fast-growing country, where around two-thirds of its billion-plus population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

There have been countless fights between protesters and police in Singur. Some protesters have attacked factory workers, trying to intimidate them into staying away. One engineer had to be taken to hospital after his car was stoned.

The protesters’ cause finds support in the communists’ opponents. The communists were routed in May local elections in Singur.

“We have been able to convince 80 percent of the workers to leave the plant,” said Becharam Manna, a leader of farmers in Singur belonging to the opposition party, Trinamool Congress.

Tata Motors declined to comment on the protesters’ actions, other than to suggest it was business as usual.

“Tata Motors is progressing its project work at Singur, towards starting production in the October-December quarter of 2008,” a company spokesman said.

The plant will directly employ about 2,000, with the project, including vendors and other services, employing about 10,000, according to Tata Motors.

It will have an initial capacity of 250,000 units that can be scaled up to 350,000 units.

But the factory has also been disrupted by flooding, leading to significant cost overruns.

The company, which recently completed the acquisition of luxury brands Jaguar and Land Rover for $2.3 billion, sounded an unusually belligerent note of caution last week.

“Ultimately, it is up to the state to determine whether they want industrialization or not,” Managing Director Ravi Kant said.

“We will continue there as long as our patience lasts,” he said, adding Singur would be the first, but not the only, plant for the Nano, reacting to speculation the company may pull out of Singur all together and go elsewhere.

In response, the government has increased security by the factory.

“The project work is nearing completion. I hope Nano will roll out on time,” said Nirupam Sen, the state’s industry minister.

($1=42 rupees)

Additional reporting by Rina Chandran; Editing by Jonathan Allen and Jerry Norton