Bumpy Road for World's Cheapest Car

Protests have caused slowdowns

His voice shaking, security guard Sanjib Chowdhury says he fears opening the gate of the eastern Indian factory that is assembling what will be the world's cheapest car. Furious farmers and rights groups say the expropriation of land in West Bengal state for the plant was little more than theft, and protesters are doing their best to throw a spanner in the works. "Villagers are threatening to kill us if we keep working at the site," he quakes through the iron gate of the project where the Nano, dubbed the "king of econoboxes" with its promised price tag of $2,500, is being made.

The car -- which Tata chairman Ratan Tata conceived with the aim of getting Indians off their motorcycles and into safer cars -- was unveiled with huge fanfare early this year at India's premier automobile show in New Dehi. But since the sporty four-door, five-seater with its 623-cc engine was shown to the world to industry acclaim, its ride has been anything but smooth. "Hardly a day goes by" without often violent protests by activists angered by the government's seizure of farmland for the project, said Chowdhury.

The walls of the plant owned by Tata, which earlier this year bought British motoring icons Jaguar and Land Rover, are plastered with warnings to workers to leave or "face the consequences."

"Opposition parties and land owners protesting the land acquisition are threatening the workers not to report to duty," said senior police official Raj Kanojia, adding that security in the area had been tightened and police watch towers are being built. Standing near a factory shed, laborer Tapan Gayen said: "We're working under the shadow of fear. Work has almost come to halt."

But despite the protests, Tata officials say the plant -- slated to produce 250,000 Nanos annually -- is nearly complete and insist the car will roll off the assembly line before year end.

The head of the Singur Land Protection Committee protesters, Becharam Manna said, the group is "not against industry" and wants Tata to set up the factory in Singur. But the group is angered at how land for the factory was taken by the state government, and wants it to return 400 acres of 997 acres seized from farmers who did not want compensation. Some farmers value their land "more than gold," he said, adding the money given was too little and they can't find other work.

The farmers' protests have sparked a debate over whether farmland should be used for industry in India, where 60% the more than 1.1 billion-plus population live off agriculture.

A showdown looms as the protest group, backed by the powerful regional Trinamool Congress party, aims to cut off the plant's power and water supplies starting August 24. So far, neither Tata nor the state government is budging. Tata Motors managing director Ravi Kant concedes the situation is "bad" but not so bad for the car company to exit, and insists the Nano will roll out from the Singur plant sometime in the October-December financial quarter. "We could have set up the plant anywhere. But we decided on West Bengal as we want this part of the country to see development," Kant told shareholders late last month. "Some elements are causing problems. But we're moving ahead," he said.

Opposition to the plant is not the only problem Tata Motors face. Global steel prices are at record highs, making it tougher than ever for the company to keep the Nano's base price at $2,500. Still, it is expected to hold the price at the announced $2,500 for the launch period at least as chairman Ratan Tata said, "a promise is a promise."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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