NEWS

Land Acquisition The Greatest Hurdle Before Mamata Banerjee's Government Post Singur And Bhangar

Bhangar is only the tip of the iceberg.

15/02/2017 10:27 AM IST | Updated 15/02/2017 12:09 PM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011 in West Bengal after the state had seen several land movements organised against the former Left Front government. Banerjee was either the driving force in these movements or had associated herself as an opposition leader in the farmers' protests against forcible land acquisition against the then CPM-led government.

And now, in her second term, Banerjee as chief minister, is herself facing stiff opposition in several parts of the state from landlosers, leading to different projects being either shelved or delayed indefinitely.

Bhangar, located 30 km from Kolkata, where a power grid substation project was nearing completion, saw opposition from local villagers who resisted the government's forcible land acquisition. This was the first major challenge before the Mamata Banerjee government. But there are several other areas in West Bengal where villagers are resisting land acquisition.

It has become a bigger challenge after September 2016, when, following a Supreme Court judgment that deemed the acquisition in Singur illegal, Mamata Banerjee had returned 9,117 land records to farmers and compensated around 800 farmers from whom land had been forcibly acquired by the former Left Front government.

These are some other areas where the Bengal government is now facing opposition over land acquisition:

"We are not parting with any more land. We were told there would be industry here for which we had to part with our land unwillingly. But all we can see around are multi-storied, residential buildings."

Just outside the Rajarhat New Town, in Teghoria – approximately 10 km from Kolkata – an agitation is currently taking place protesting acquisition of 160 acre for building roads. This area, like Bhangar, is primarily cultivable land, but has been undergoing conversion to other uses due to its proximity to Kolkata, and land prices are shooting up. The area falls in the New Kolkata Planning Area and is under the supervision of New Kolkata Development Authority (a body formed for planned development of the area). With government plans for construction of 20 metre, 40 metre and 12 metre wide roads, locals are resisting acquisition of farmland.

According to Ishaq Ali Mollah, "We are not parting with any more land." Mollah's farmland had been acquired by the former Left Front government and he got ₹13,800 a cottah. "We were told there would be industry here for which we had to part with our land unwillingly. But all we can see around are multi-storied, residential buildings. We won't give up any more land," Mollah said. "Mamata Banerjee promised us jobs after coming to power, but nothing has been done so far."

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Thousands of people of Polerhat, Bhangar, South 24 Pgs gather in a protest rally against agriculture land acquisition to built Power Grid in Polerhat, South 24 Parganas. Activist also submits a memorandum to Governor protesting this land acquisition in this occasion.

According to urban development minister Firhad Hakim, "The chief minister has said no acquisition will take place without people's consent. We will discuss the matter with them."

But for now, the project has gone to the back burner.

Following the Supreme Court order and return of farmland to the Singur farmers, 52 landowners of Kawakhali (where a township just outside Siliguri in north Bengal was to come up), have demanded their land back. In 2005, the Siliguri Jalpaiguri Development Authority (SJDA) had acquired 302 acre in Darjeeling's Matigara and Jalpaiguri's Rajganj, to make the township. Land was acquired from 1,700 landowners.

SJDA has now taken resolution to return 11.5 acre land to these 52 unwilling landowners, but the matter is still pending due to procedural reasons. According to state minister Gautam Deb, "We could not return land to unwilling persons due to lack of legal provisions earlier. But after the Supreme Court order on Singur, the legal aspects are clear. Now, we are waiting for a nod from the urban development department."

"What's the use of the land lying idle all these years? We want industry in the state, but since that is not happening, the government better return the land to us."

At Raghunathpur of Purulia district, land-losers are demanding return of their land that was acquired for an industrial park. Of the 1,800 acre acquired already (the entire park is bigger, but acquisition is not yet complete), farmers are demanding return of their land. They reasoned that since no major industry has yet been set up though the land had been acquired eight years ago, it is best that the government return them their land.

"What's the use of the land lying idle all these years? We want industry in the state, but since that is not happening, the government better return the land to us," Baneswar Ganguly, member of the Nutandi Anchal Krishi Committee, told HuffPost India. He admitted that the agitation last lost much of its steam because of the government's fresh assurances of bringing industry in the area. "We are waiting and watching. We will launch the agitation again if the government fails to keep the promise," Ganguly said.

At Rajarhat New Town, where land acquisition notification for 21 mouzas had started way back in 1997, an agitation has started in 2016 against the Banerjee government following the return of land in Singur. The land was acquired by the former Left Front government for setting up the satellite township. According to Sk Nizamuddin, the convenor of Rajarhat Jomi Banchao Committee, about 30,000 families are behind the agitation against the state government now. Some of them want their land back, while others are seeking higher compensation.

"Huge swathes of land are lying unused. The compensation was very poor too. The unused land must be returned and the families whose land was used must be given higher compensation," Nizamuddin said.

For Mamata Banerjee, it may be just the beginning of a series of protests on land acquisition that would remind her of a past that she is finding difficult to handle from the other side of the spectrum.

In many cases, people got poor compensation as low as ₹6,000 per cottah. Several organisers including Nizamuddin (who is also a Pradesh Congress Committee secretary) had been arrested in 2016. "We may have been snubbed and arrested, but that cannot stop us. Land agitation is on in several parts of West Bengal, and we are waiting for an appropriate time to launch the movement against the government again," Nizamuddin said.

For Banerjee, it may be just the beginning of a series of protests on land acquisition that would remind her of a past that she is finding difficult to handle from the other side of the spectrum.

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