Villagers in India fight back over state's plan for chemical factory

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The Independent Online

The road to Nandigram ends abruptly in a trench. This used to be a sleepy huddle of villages in a corner of West Bengal where few outsiders ever bothered to come. Now the villagers have dug up the roads or blocked them with logs and rubble to stop anyone coming. It looks like a war zone, and in a sense it is. The villagers here have declared war on the Indian government.

The authorities want to build a giant new chemical plant in Nandigram. The villagers are refusing to move away. They have turned down offers of compensation and virtually declared independence. It has turned violent, with at least six people killed so far in clashes between villagers and government supporters.

India is the second fastest-growing economy in the world, and foreigners are queuing up to invest. An Indonesian company is set to build the chemical plant here. Suddenly, everybody wants to be a part of emerging India - but not the villagers of Nandigram.

"I will never give this land up," says Mohammed Mujibur Rahman Khan. "I refuse it 100 times over." This is the other story of India's emergence - one you rarely hear.

Mr Khan is a dirt poor farmer. His home is a simple wooden shack where he lives with his wife and six children, and his two brothers and their families. There is no electricity in the villages here. No water. There are only two televisions in the entire area, both black-and-white and run on car batteries, and hundreds of villagers crowd around each one to watch old videos of Bollywood movies.

The government is offering Mr Khan money that could transform his life. At the moment he makes 22,000 rupees (£255) a year. With the money the government is offering, he could move to the city and get a job that pays more. But he says he is not interested.

"It doesn't matter how much they offer me," he says. "They can offer me 10 million rupees (£120,000). It is my motherland. How can I leave it?"

While the middle classes in India's cities eagerly embrace the rush to economic development and the trappings of consumerism, here in the villages an older India is refusing to die quietly. Mr Khan's eldest son has left home to work in the neighbouring state of Orissa, but Mr Khan insists that when he dies, his son will return to take over the family farm.

Another of the villagers, Sheikh Mohinuddin, explains: "I was born here. So was my father and my grandfather. My family was here in the British times, we were here 200, 300 years ago. We have spent our whole lives here. We love this place. We want our land."

The villagers have united against the planned chemical plant. From the moment you arrive, they carefully look you over at the roadblocks and decide whether you are welcome. Everyone you speak to is adamant: they will not give up their land.

What they are standing against is India's grand plans to build special economic zones (SEZs) across the country, modelled on the ones that were at the heart of China's rapid industrialisation and emergence as a global economy.

Despite its fast growth, India has struggled to keep up with China in industrialisation. The SEZs are supposed to change all that. With low taxes to attract foreign investors, they will not house just one factory, but will cover huge expanses of land with factory complexes,worker housing and amenities. Nandigram is not planned to be a single chemical plant, but a major hub for the chemical industry, spread across 19,000 acres.

The federal Commerce Ministry says the first 63 SEZs around the country will bring in £6.8bn in investment and create 890,000 jobs. Indonesia's Salim Group is set to start building at Nandigram, and the government of West Bengal has undertaken to buy up the land compulsorily from the farmers. But the farmers are not budging.

Their greatest scorn is for the chief minister of West Bengal state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who they say signed the deal with the Indonesians without ever consulting his own people here. What makes the row especially explosive is that Mr Bhattacharya is, in name at least, a communist. West Bengal has elected a communist government for decades. But to the dismay of villagers, the West Bengal Communist Party, and especially Mr Bhattacharya, have recently fallen in love with big business.

At first, young Communist Party supporters tried to silence the villagers with muscle, turning up to a rally and beating up some of those present. Things got ugly and someone opened fire, and at least six villagers were killed. Mr Khan says he watched as two died on the spot. The other four died of their injuries in hospital.

But that incident has only made the villagers even more determined, and now it seems they have the government worried - and not just in West Bengal. Stung by the degree of passion at Nandigram, the federal government in Delhi has put plans for hundreds of SEZs around the country on hold. In West Bengal, Mr Bhattacharya's government, already facing violent protests over a proposed car factory at another site, has announced it is freezing action on Nandigram for now, to allow tempers to cool. But it insists the project will go ahead in time.

The villagers are adamant that it will not. Their children still run free among the betel nut palms and banana groves of Nandigram. The sunset is mirrored on the pond where Mr Khan farms fish. The life he and his friends are bent on defending is a tough one. But as more details emerge by the day of a serial killer who preyed on children in the slums of Delhi, which are full of immigrants from the villages, you can see why it is a life they might want to keep.

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