Some farmers in eastern India who sold their land to make way for the Nano factory have since been agitating to get it back. With the protest swelling in recent days, Tata Motors decided this week to stop construction of the plant and shifted start-up production elsewhere. But it is not only a setback for the $2,250 car.
In a country where 740 million people - two-thirds of the population - live scattered through 660,000 villages, the closing of Tata's factory deals a cruel blow to a widespread hope among policy makers and business people: that India will find a peaceful way to wean these millions from their land and move them into productive alternative livelihoods.
"As each generation develops, the children of the rural economy must decide whether they want to continue to work on the farms," Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, said Wednesday in an interview by telephone, his first since it was announced Tuesday that operations in Singur, about an hour's drive from Calcutta, would be suspended.
To enthusiasts of a "new India," the choice of staying on the land or leaving is not a tough one. There is, after all, only so much value that can be wrung from a cow's udders or a cob of corn. Millions of village dwellers have already migrated to cities.
But there, under a bright morning sky, a village elder sat in his front yard, offered his visitors spicy tea, explained his deep attachment to the soil and noted that he had shotguns in his house and would fire them at any Reliance land scout who came his way.
This dilemma does not belong to India. Every nation that has industrialized has had to reconcile these conflicting feelings. But in China, Russia, South Korea and elsewhere, fiat has helped to suppress naysayers.
As the United States urbanized a century ago, it did so in a politically insulated world where many Americans still could not vote, and no one had a television beaming potential new grievances into their home night after night. In present-day India, by contrast, "everyone has a veto," in the words of Aroun Shourie, a former cabinet minister.
At the poshest cocktail parties in Bangalore or Delhi, an Indian-looking interlocutor will inevitably be asked her "native place" - not the place you were born, the place you live now, or the place where your parents live. It is the village where your family last tilled the soil - even if they left in 1838.
Land is status. Throughout history, and in many parts still today, Dalits, known once as untouchables, have been confined to land on the outskirts of villages, on the theory that their nearness would pollute the others.
Without a sacred commitment to a particular patch of earth, the entire caste system could not have worked. No one would have been untouchable anymore if it was so easy to sell land and move to where no one knew you.
"They derive their identity from land," said Suhel Seth, a longtime adviser to the Tata Group and the managing partner of Counselage, a strategic branding firm in New Delhi. "It also ties them to a certain social acceptability. Their entire societal being relates to the land that they own."
And so, even where farmers consent to sell their land, he added, "you're creating a sense of displacement, and through that displacement you're creating a sense of insecurity. This is why land has become an emotional issue."
Tata says it has tried to help villagers succeed in a new world, training them, sending them to other plants to learn skills and making plans to employ them on the Nano.
But Arundhati Roy, the novelist and a frequent critic of India's economic policy, said that such efforts touched too few people.
"People have understood that clinging to even the tiniest of landholdings will offer them a better chance of survival and dignity than all the false promises of jobs and prosperity that the government and big companies make before evicting them," Roy added. "For these reasons, the battle for land in India is increasingly becoming a fight to the death."
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