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Stalled Car Factory Costing Jobs, Splitting Neighbors in West Bengal

Indian carmaker, Tata Motors, plans to launch the world's cheapest car, the Nano, in October. But the Nano plant in West Bengal has run into serious trouble from protests by local activists. VOA's Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Barispada, near the Nano factory, which is just outside Kolkata, the capital of India's West Bengal state.

"We support Mamata Banerjee." "We want answers." "We want answers from Tata."

These were some of the slogans shouted by tens of thousands of people during Tuesday's protests at Tata's sprawling Nano factory in Singur.

Mamata Banerjee is chief of the Trinamool Congress, the opposition party in West Bengal. She has taken up the plight of more than a thousand farmers in Singur who have been displaced by land buyouts to make room for Tata's 400-hectare car factory.

Banerjee, farmers and other opposition parties have staged massive protests that have virtually shut down Tata's Nano plant, which could stall the carmaker's October rollout of the world's cheapest car.

"Singur is a role model for the whole world," said Becharam Manna, the local vice chairman for the Trinamool Congress Party. "They have set an example before the world and for Third World countries where the big corporate houses come and grab the land. They have stopped that."

The Tata controversy has become a major showdown in India between big industry and small farmers, part of India's growing pains as its old, agrarian economy makes way for a more modern economy fueled by industry and technology.

Analysts say the biggest hurdle for industry has been acquiring land. Across India, about 37,000 hectares of farmland are being investigated for land-grabbing practices by industrial giants, according to several media reports. The land disputes affect more than a half million farmers.

Biren Pakira, 52, is a potato farmer in Barispada. Like many farmers here, he says he was pressured to sell his land to West Bengal's government at far below the fair market value.

He says, the government captured the land that is now inside the Tata factory and he did not get much money for it. There were 14 people who owned two hectares and they were paid 40 lakhs for it, he says.

That is just more than $7,000 apiece. Pakira says they should have made at least four times that much, but he was able to build a bigger house for his wife and three children.

After weeks of protests, the Tata issue has boiled down to about 120 hectares that the farmers want back. Tata says, no.

West Bengal's government is trying to mediate the crisis, but without much success. Banerjee has vowed to fight on.

Tata's problems in West Bengal are scaring off other industries hoping to locate here, including Infosys, a software maker that wants to build a business park that would provide 5,000 jobs.

Kartik Chandra Malik, 57, runs a tea shop near the boundary wall of Tata's Nano factory.

He says he is frustrated that the factory has been stopped. He says wants it to open, because when it is open he can do more business selling tea and biscuits. He is hoping his son, who just graduated from college, will get a good job at the factory.

Many of Malik's neighbors in Barispada are tight-lipped when it comes to talking about Tata's troubles. There is growing tension in the villages near the Tata factory as the protests continue and the plant remains closed. The Tata crisis pits neighbors against each other.

Malik says many of his neighbors are being pressured by opposition groups to protest against the carmaker. But many here already have jobs lined up at the factory or hope to.

A young man at Malik's tea shop said he got a job loading trucks at the Tata plant. For that, many of neighbors have called him a traitor.