BY PARTHA DASGUPTA
AS THE West Bengal Assembly election draws near, Trinamool Congress chief and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee’s political plank — forcible land acquisition — is being thrown back at her. That too, relating to railway projects that have been in the incubator for decades.
Villagers are opposing a railway project on 630 acres of farmland in Sankrail, Howrah district, acquired from 400-odd families in the early 1980s. On the morning of 7 December, when railway contractors tried to start landfill work at Bhagabatipur between Sankrail and Abada railway stations, they were driven away by villagers cutting across party lines. This is where a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) coach factory is to be built with Rs. 263 crore sanctioned in the last rail budget.
Although the Trinamool chief blamed the stir on ‘outsiders’, clearly hinting at the CPM, the 300-odd men who stalled the landfill were brought together by the Sankrail Block Krishijomi Rokkha Committee led by local TMC leaders Ashis Malik, Pradip Bhuniya and Bonhisikha Das.
But local MLA Sheetal Sardar, also of the TMC, disagrees: “The CPM has conspired to stall the work for the factory. We are in close touch with the authorities regarding the demands of the local people and hope to restore construction work in a couple of days.”
Asked for her reaction, Mamata waxed philosophical: “It is for the locals to decide whether they want the factory. I meant well and got sanction for the project as the land was unutilised for 25 years.”
When the land was acquired by the state government in 1981-84 at the behest of the then Union minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, the going rate for compensation was Rs. 3,200 a bigha.
The then Railway Minister Madhavrao Scindia offered a job to one member of every family that parted with its land. However, after a couple of years, the railways discontinued the project of shifting the Shalimar yard to Sankrail, thereby jeopardising the livelihood of a couple of thousand people.
Ironically, the TMC-led Singur land agitation raised farmers’ expectations and they are now demanding a ‘fresh and just’ compensation for their land, which at present market rates is a whopping Rs. 60 lakh per bigha.
The CPM is clearly using the land card just as the TMC did in the past. Debu Malik, member of the Sankrail-1 local committee of the CPM, who lost his land to the project, said, “We have four demands. We need to know exactly what is going to come up here. The railways must stick to its promise of one job for every family. The farmers must be paid compensation at the going market rates and locals must be engaged in any construction work that happens here.”
The TMC chief, referring to the case filed for higher compensation, retorted, “We are not Tata or Birla. It is going to be a railway project. I am sympathetic to the cause of the locals and will go by the verdict of the court.”
But it’s not just Sankrail. There are local protests also in the north Bengal commercial town of Siliguri, a left bastion ruled by Municipal Affairs and Urban Development and Town Planning Minister and CPM strongman Ashok Bhattacharya. The construction of the northeastern head office of the Railway Recruitment Board on a popular tennis ground has run into rough weather following protests by the SFI, the students wing of the CPM. Bhattacharya wrote to Mamata on 15 December urging her to halt work.
THE LETTER says this ground has ‘transcended’ beyond a mere playground to a ‘heritage’ ground hosting big cultural meets, and is the ‘green heart’ of the town. It also expresses concern about the possible eviction of the slum dwellers on its periphery, referring to a representation from the Siliguri Safaai Mazdoor (Scavengers) Welfare Association.
Bhattacharya, the selfstyled ‘chief minister of north Bengal’ has urged the railway minister to “refrain” from constructing the building on humanitarian grounds.
However, the biggest land tussle is at Dankuni, 15 km west of Kolkata, where the department of fisheries filed an FIR against the railways on 16 December for allegedly filling up three fishing ponds measuring 75 acres to build its dedicated freight corridor (DFC). The corridor runs through 39,000 acres.
Now, Fisheries Minister Kiranmoy Nanda of the Socialist Party is in Mamata’s line of fire. She has accused him of pleading with her for an election ticket. “It is all a part of a bigger conspiracy being hatched by the CPM to scuttle development projects for the state,” she said.
It will be interesting to see how Mamata handles the boomeranging of her strongest political weapon — forcible land acquisition — in the run-up to the polls.