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Land gone, but no cash in pocket

Farmers in Nadia have threatened to block an arsenic-free water project if they do not get the cash compensation for the land that the government has taken from them.

Around 300 farmers and their family members from different areas of the district, under the banner PHE Jal Prakalpa Jomi Adhikar Suraksha Samity, gheraoed two Public Health Engineering (PHE) division offices at Kalyani in August, demanding compensation.

Afraid that it would have to send the funds back to the Centre, the state government started work on the project without formally acquiring the land.

Most farmers said they have not been paid any compensation at all. A few have been compensated, but at a rate that is 1/20th or even less than the market value of the land.

The landowners had been promised jobs. All they have got is work as casual labourers operating pumps at project sites; that too employed through agencies. Tension has been building up in different areas of the district where farm plots were acquired.

“We will stop the work after Durga puja unless the public health department comes up with a solution,” said Suman Ganguly, president of the farmers’ organisation.

Construction of overhead water tanks and pumphouses and setting up of machinery have started at 106 ground-based water supply project sites. Work has also started at three river-based sites in the district.

The project, funded by the Centre, costs around Rs 32,000 crore and is aimed at benefiting 25 lakh people in the district. In Nadia, 17 of the 23 blocks suffer from arsenic contamination.

Haringhata, Chakdaha, Ranaghat and Nakashipara are the worst affected blocks where people have died from arsenic contamination.

Between 1990 and 2000 about 40 people died from arsenicosis, a disease contracted from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

In 2009, the state government started construction work for the project with funds from the Centre under its arsenic mitigation programme.

The state public health department identified plots for the project after a survey.

The sites were mostly on farmland adjacent to main thoroughfares in different areas of the district. The department did not bother to acquire the land formally in most cases.

“One day the PHE officials came to me and requested me to hand over my mango orchard spread over a bigha of land on the Duttapulia road for the project,” alleges Chittaranjan Pal, a farmer at Doula village in Dhantala.

“I agreed as they offered me compensation for the land at the market price along with interest for the delayed period of payment and offered me a job of a pump operator on contract,” says Pal.

“They took my no-objection certification (NOC) to start work on my land, but did not give me any formal papers,” says Pal, who now works as a labourer.

Ranjit Roy of Matikumra village in Ranaghat had given one bigha for the project. “I had a lot of land where I used to grow vegetables and flowers but now I have become a poor labourer,” Roy said.

The government admits the irregularity.

Champak Bhattacharjee, executive engineer of the public health engineering department, Nadia division, said: “We were compelled to start work after taking the NOC from the farmers, without formally acquiring the land as it would delay the process, leading to the return of the central fund.”

Subrata Sarkar, a farmer and the secretary of the PHE Jalprakalpa Adhikar Suraksha Samity, said: “The farmers gave land at the cost of their livelihood, but neither the erstwhile Left Front government nor the new one was concerned about the plight of the farmers.”

“So far, only around 8 per cent of the farmers have been paid compensation, that too, at a very meagre rate of Rs 5,000 per cottah,” he said.

“Land for most of the project is located on the main thoroughfares near the town, for which the current market price is not less than Rs 1 lakh per cottah,” said Ganguly.

“In some areas the price has gone up to Rs.1.5 lakh per cottah because of its location along busy roads connecting local towns and on bus routes,” Ganguly added.

Nauser Ali Mondal of Gazna-Bazitpur in Hanshkhali says he gave away “17 cottahs at only Rs 5,235 per cottah, when the price is now Rs 1.15 lakh per cottah”.

Shyamal Ghosh of Haringhata has recently received a payment of Rs 1,63,000 for a one bigha plot of land. “The government has paid me just Rs 8,150 per cotta, when farmland is being sold in my area at Rs 70,000 per cottah,” he says.

Sarkar said the employment of farmers as pump operators, that too through implementing agencies, at the project sites raises questions about the seriousness of the government’s intent.

The farmers are afraid that the jobs will be terminated once the projects are over.

“Unless the system is changed. we will not work any more,” said Sarkar.

Bhattcharjee, the executive engineer, acknowledged that compensation had not been paid. “The delay is on the part of the land acquisition department, to which we have already handed over the entire funds.”

The district magistrate of Nadia, Abhinav Chandra, says all the land acquisition cases have been processed. “The payments will be released once the matter gets cabinet approval, likely this month.”

The rates of the land were decided by the government based on certain factors. “The district administration had no role to play. However, as far as I know, the land owners are being aptly compensated.”

The district administration wants to settle the issue so that work on the project is not hampered, Chandra says.

Since May this year, the public health engineering department has started paying an interim relief to the farmers. “The farmers who have given land for construction of overhead tanks are given Rs 3,000 per month and the others are being paid Rs 1,500,” Ganguly said.