Experience counts. Will Mamata Banerjee's past experience – as the opposition leader who made the former Left Front government abandon and stall several projects in Bengal – now help her scuttle the voice of opposition as the chief minister easily?
The Bengal government's handling of the Bhangar power grid substation project may be a case in point, as the state government is trying to implement the project despite talks earlier of abandoning it.
When Banerjee was in the opposition in Bengal, the Left Front government could not execute several projects in the state – the Tata Nano could not roll out of Singur due to the severe opposition from her party, the Trinamool Congress, an agitation she had led from the front. The proposed projects at Nandigram (approximately 10,000 acre SEZ) and Haripur (nuclear power plant) too faced similar hurdles that the Left Front government could not overcome, and these were either abandoned or stalled.
Now, as the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee faced her first major challenge in Bhangar – where landlosers formed a committee backed by a Maoist party, set up a tough opposition and clashed with the police (in the same way that Trinamool Congress had backed people's agitation in Singur and Nandigram).
After the clash between villagers and police on 17 January at Bhangar, Banerjee had tweeted that the government would not go ahead with the project if the people did not want it and it could be relocated. But the tweet was removed within half an hour. Senior Trinamool Congress leaders Mukul Roy, local MLA Abdur Rezzak Mollah (also a state minister), and power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay had all publicly stated that the government would not go ahead with the project if the people were against it. However, no official notification was issued.
But a couple of weeks later, the PGCL has now issued an appeal in newspapers outlining the project details and seeking support "from all quarters for the successful completion of the power grid sub station". The appeal says that "90% of the work has been completed, which will supply power to different parts of Kolkata, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas".
The appeal adds that GIS (Gas Insulin Switchgear) is a safe technology which also helps construct a sub-station on one-fourth of land required in substations using other technology. It says that GIS is used in countries like China, Japan, UK, Russia, US and in India too, over 30 such sub stations use this technology. It also "clarifies" that the transmission lines have been connected 9 metre or more from the ground (even as four metre from the ground is considered safe).
The appeal also adds that "nowhere has such lines caused harm to people, cattle, fish or environment." These were some doubts and misgivings among people in the area. The police entered the area recently and appealed to people to cooperate with the state for the project. Leader of CPI (ML) Red Star, Sharmistha Chowdhury was arrested. The CPI (ML) Red Star has been backing the people in their protest.
Mamata Banerjee, who has been in the Opposition leading such protests against the state, knows exactly what could give the state administration sleepless nights.
These are the two steps that the state has taken to indicate that police "action" has helped in scuttling the movement of Bhangar. The Left Front government had often been accused of inaction – from a section of the CPM and its other constituent parties – leading to the movements at Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh spin out of the government's control. At other times, the police under the Left Front rule have also been accused of using force on people, leading to such agitation. Mamata Banerjee, who has been in the Opposition leading such protests against the state, knows exactly what could give the state administration sleepless nights.
State Power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay told HuffPost India,"Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has said that we won't set up any project at the cost of people's tears. But this project at Bhangar will benefit people, and they have had some misconceptions about it. Such projects have been set up in several parts of the country, and we are appealing to the people to cooperate with the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited to complete it."
Chattopadhyay added that if the people in the area had not cooperated, the project could not have progressed so far. "Ninety per cent of the work is done," he said. CPM state secretary, Surjya Kanta Mishra told HuffPost India that his party was not in favour of stalling projects. "It was her (Mamata Banerjee) own party and its factions that had created trouble at Bhangar. We have always maintained that government has to acquire land for development projects, and the state must give compensation to landlosers as per the new Act which has now come into effect."
Whether the steps Mamata Banerjee has taken to see the Bhangar project to the finish has been forcibly thrust on the people, only time can tell.
The fact remains that clashes between factions within the Trinamool Congress had led to severe disgruntlement in Bhangar, and a faction of the ruling party had pressured people to part with their land for the project. Land acquisition is a complex process, and if people continue to be unhappy, police action – an assertion of the state's power – can hardly help. Whether the steps Mamata Banerjee has taken to see the Bhangar project to the finish has been forcibly thrust on the people, only time can tell.
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