On Tuesday the state cabinet, chaired by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, agreed to legalise the transfer of leasehold rights to residential property in Salt Lake. Once the official notification is out, the state government would collect a licence fee of Rs 5 lakh per cottah for every plot that is transferred. The fee will not be applicable only in case of transfer to blood relations. And even before the dust settled on the agenda of the meeting, Salt Lake Citizens’ Welfare Society, an umbrella body of residents, has announced its decision to move court against the state government’s step.
Said Bhupendranath Chatterjee, general secretary of the body: “The dream of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy would be crushed since middle-class Bengalis would leave the township to settle in far-away Baruipur or Bongaon. The township was created for the middle-class but we would not be able to stay here. All the plots that have been sold off illegally all these years would be regularised just by paying a fee to the government,” said Chatterjee.
The society was earlier called Bidhannagar Bachao Committee. Located in BB Block, it was set up in 1991 with the sole aim of working to control illegal transfer of land.
Chatterjee argues that according to the West Bengal Land (Regulation and Transfer) Act, 1993, one cannot transfer land to any other person other than a blood relation. This is also one of the 20 clauses in the lease deed for Salt Lake plots.
The state government in 1998 had issued an order to nullify the act. Then in 2006, a case was filed in the high court to make the West Bengal Land (Regulation and Transfer) Act, 1993 active. But the court did not pass any order. “Advocate-general Balai Roy requested the high court to keep implementation of the act in abeyance since the government was not in a position to implement it in Salt Lake. The verdict is still awaited,” said Chatterjee.
Plots had been leased out to residents for 999 years since the 1970s by the government on condition that the leaseholders would not be able to transfer the plots. But as Salt Lake became a sought-after address, many plots started being sold out clandestinely. Several methods were resorted to for such transfer, power of attorney, will, rent and loan being the most common ones.
In 2005, the state government allowed the transfer of only the commercial plots.
The state urban development department is the owner of almost all the land in Salt Lake. There are 13,000 residential plots in the township. A survey conducted by the department in February 2012 found that around 4,000 plots have been transferred illegally. A survey conducted by the welfare society puts the figure at around 6,000.
According to sources at Nagarayan Bhavan, the government’s chief motive behind the decision to allow transfer of leasehold rights is to earn revenue. The lease-holders of all these 4,000 plots would be asked to pay up. After the notification comes out, a notice to this effect would be published in newspapers. The government expects to earn an estimated Rs 800 crore.
During the Left Front regime, a seven-member committee comprising representatives of Bidhannagar Municipality, police, urban development department and Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority as well as the sub-divisional officer, was formed on May 27, 1993.
The committee was supposed to investigate reports of individual cases of illegal land transfer and report to the government.
Former chairman of Bidhannagar Municipality Biswajiban Majumdar was one of the members of the committee. “It was a long-drawn process and each report took many months to send. When an illegal transfer was reported to us, police used to go and check the situation as did civic body officials. Then the committee used to reach a decision on the basis of their reports. The decision of the committee was submitted to the state government. It was the prerogative of the government to take action against the errant leaseholders,” said Majumdar.
Opposition leader of Bidhannagar Municipality Ila Nandi opposed the government’s move. “Salt Lake would pass into the hands of the rich. The government has not considered the threat to the intrinsic character of the township,” said Nandi.
Krishna Chakraborty, chairperson of Bidhannagar Municipality, has welcomed the move. “Residents in times of crisis would be able to monetise their land. The transaction would take place above board and the government would be involved,” she said.
She rubbished claims that middle-class Bengalis would be hit hard. “Salt Lake is a part of the country. Any Indian can get land here provided he has the money.”
Legalising transfer of property was one of the election promises of the Trinamul Congress in the civic as well as the Assembly elections.