"He used to love the land. He was a good farmer," says Sandhya Das in a tremulous voice as she talks about her late husband, Prashant, who took his life at the age of 35 as a result of losing his farmland.
Sandhya's is just one of the many families of Singur, in Hooghly district of West Bengal, who recently lost their fertile farmlands when the state government decided that their lands would be used to set up industrial giant Tata's small car factory. "When we lost the entire 4.5 'bighas' (three 'bighas' = 1 acre approximately) of our family land to Tata, he was completely at a loss as to how we would live," she says.
Helpless and distraught, Prashant Das, a farmer from village Khasher Bheri in Singur, found relief in a fatal dose of pesticide. At 30, Sandhya now shoulders the burden of the nightmare that Prashant has left behind. With no land and no livelihood, the question of how to bring up her two daughters, aged six and nine, haunts her, constantly. With her own health failing prematurely, she has frequent fainting fits.
In the village of Bera Beri, Arun Bagh, 40, seethes with anger and can barely speak coherently. "The land was his life," he cries out, referring to his late father, Haradhan, 78, who committed suicide in March this year. "I can't imagine a man like him even thinking of killing himself. They drove him to it, I tell you, they killed the man!" One can see he is ashamed of the tears that force their way through the wall of his rage.
Last year, the West Bengal government promised to give 1,000 acres of land to the Tatas in a bid to encourage the setting up of industries in the state. The decision has not only adversely impacted the peasant population of Singur, but has also endangered the livelihood of landless laboureres, small tradesmen and shopkeepers. State-wide protests against the move have been going on, but things took a turn for the worse with the recent suicides.
Instances of farmers' suicides due to crop failures and debt burden are not uncommon in India. But the suicides in Singur indicate a far more sinister crisis - suicide due to corporate land grab.
"Singur is not like Maharashtra," says Tapas Das, Prashant's brother, "where farmers kill themselves because of crop failure. Here, our land is rich. We get four crops every year. Even farmers who own just two or three 'bighas' can live prosperous lives. And all this is the result of our hard work - our water management, our good agricultural practices. There is no reason why farmers in such a rich area should kill themselves. This malady has been imposed on us from outside."
Haradhan Bagh's wife Mangala, 73, who has been seriously ill since her husband's death, sums up the condition of her family and those of others like her, "I had always believed that land was for ever. Even if my husband and I died, the land would still be there for my children and grandchildren. But now the land is gone and the man is gone. What will I leave my children now?"
Prashant and Haradhan were in very different stages of life, yet there was a lot that was similar about them. Families remember both as good and hard-working farmers - like all farmers in the region - and as having a zest for life. "He worked hard to improve the land," recalls Sandhya. "He dug a mini (small tube well) and made bunds to harvest water. Last year we had a record produce of potatoes and paddy. He would constantly prattle about what more we could do to improve our farming. We were even talking of getting extra land on lease. We are still living off the crop that we harvested last year."
Mangala's aged eyes also light up briefly when she talks about her late husband. "He was fond of rare and exotic foods. He brought and planted different kinds of 'kochoos' (edible roots) and herbs in our yard, and during the rains he would catch a variety of small fish from the paddy fields - without missing out on the work. And even at his age he worked for 14 to 16 hours a day," she says.
When the government made a move for land acquisition, both farmers fought fiercely against it. Haradhan had even taken part in a 10-day hunger strike as part of the anti-acquisition movement. Prashant had also been an active anti- acquisition agitator. On the night of September 25, 2006, when farmers, who were staging a protest at the Singur BDO (Block Development Office) were attacked the by police and CPM cadre, Prashant had jumped into a pond and helped several agitators escape the violence. "He was not the kind of person who breaks easily. His hold on life was so strong," says Sandhya.
Like most of the 1,200 farmers whose land was acquired for the factory, the Das and Bagh families have not accepted compensation cheques from the West Bengal government. "When the news of my father's suicide came out," says Arun, "the officials tried to suppress it. They asked me what compensation I wanted. I was amazed that they could talk of compensation when my father had died for the land. I told them to not even think of it."
But the question of what can be done to redress the situation brings out complex reactions. "We had fought with the hope that we would save our lands. What can I say now that the land is gone and my son is gone," says Geeta, Prashant's mother. "We had asked no one for anything, and yet they came and took away our land. What is the point of asking what we want?"
"Don't talk about what can be done or what compensation we want," says Mangala. "Is land nothing but compensation? Land is our life. If you really want to know what we want, we want our land and our life back. If you can't give us that, don't come asking what we want."
"I don't know what will come of our struggle," says Arun, "but one thing is for sure: I will not give up. My father died for this land, and I will not give up till I die. I don't care what else happens."