West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was hit where it hurt most. Local leaders of Trinamool Congress at Bhangar routinely pressuring villagers to sell their farmland led to deep discontent in the area that culminated in a flare-up on 17 January. The agitation was over the construction of a power grid substation that was nearing completion. Even though anger had been simmering among villagers since the farmland acquisition process had begun over four years ago, the state administration and the Trinamool Congress top leadership did not address the issue earlier.
For Banerjee, who had won the people's mandate and come to power in 2011 after her own involvement in 3 major agitations over forcible land acquisition against the former Left Front government, this has been a huge embarrassment.
This has led her to take a decision to identify areas with similar characteristics as Bhangar and firm up a policy on the conversion of farmland to other uses. Subsequently this would be incorporated into existing laws guiding conversion of farmland by the panchayats, said a senior official.
"Whenever a good road is set up, those with farmland on either side come under threat from builders who use local touts and strongmen to pressure these villagers to sell their land"
Bhangar II block – where the 17 January clash took place between villagers and police – is located close to Rajarhat Action Area I, II, and III. Rajarhat is close to the Netaji Subhas Chandra International Airport, and the area is undergoing massive transformation as housing, offices, hospitals and other projects are coming up. Bhangar has been primarily an agricultural area, but it has undergone urbanisation on a large scale in the recent past, with builders and touts purchasing land, especially when bigger roads are constructed by the government.
"Whenever a good road is set up, those with farmland on either side come under threat from builders who use local touts and strongmen to pressure these villagers to sell their land," said an official.
Now, the chief minister has asked a top officer to list all the areas in the state with features similar to Bhangar. There are agricultural areas in the state that are located adjacent to those regions witnessing major changes due to urbanisation. The government will frame new laws to guide conversion of farmland to other uses in these areas, the officer said.
A meeting has been called this week to work out the details of the policy that may eventually be enacted by changing the rules of an existing law. Currently, the power of converting farmland to other uses lies with block land records officers and above, depending on the size of land to be converted. Construction plans over these plots are subsequently sanctioned, in rural areas, by the panchayat.
There are allegations that corruption is a major issue and often plots that should not get sanctions for conversion, are also given clearances.
However, there are allegations that, at both the land and land reforms section in district administration offices, as well as in the panchayat, corruption is a major issue and often plots that should not get sanctions for conversion, are also given clearances. How this aspect would be addressed is another matter that the government and the ruling party will have to work out.
The details of possible changes to the law are a bit hazy at this point. But sources said that clearances might have to be obtained from a much higher level – possibly the district and state level – for all conversion of farmland uses in such areas.
For the moment, the Mamata Banerjee government is looking for other potential Bhangars, hoping the policies and rules her government will frame may prevent builders, touts and local strongmen from using their power and influence to get their job done.
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