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Land clash in Birbhum

- Violence erupts when cops go to take away machine from villagers
A truck that was brought to tow away the excavator and a police vehicle that were ransacked by villagers in Loba. Picture by Snehamoy Chakraborty

Loba (Birbhum), Nov. 6: Nearly 200 policemen and several thousand villagers clashed in Birbhum over a land dispute today when a law enforcers’ team on court orders went there to free an earth-moving machine from the villagers.

What followed after the police team reached Loba village at 4am could serve as a message to authorities about what can happen to projects when the state refuses to acquire land and private industry decides to buy acres from farmers directly — a way of doing business that chief minister Mamata Banerjee seems to prefer.

Part of the land required for the project by DVC-Emta (DVC is a public-sector entity, Emta is a private group with mining interests) was bought directly from farmers, but later another lot of farmers disputed the rates and held back an earth-moving machine that DVC-Emta had taken there.

The people of Loba village today alleged that the police team fired at them, but the state government has denied that firearms were used. Twenty-seven policemen were injured when the villagers shot arrows at them and threw bricks.

Four villagers are also admitted to Suri Sadar hospital with wounds, which they said were caused by bullets. The state government has put the number of injured villagers at six and said two are critical. According to the villagers, the police allegedly used tear gas first, then lathi-charged to disperse the mob. When the number of villagers kept swelling, the police allegedly fired at them.

At 4am today, the police team went to Loba, heeding a Suri court that ordered the police to go and get the earth-moving machine freed from the villagers. The residents had held back the machine since December 19, 2011.

DVC-Emta had appealed in court for government intervention to get the machine released.

DVC-Emta wanted to make an open coal mine in Loba and 11 other villages in Dubrajpur block, spanning 3,353 acres. Emta planned to build a hospital, a market complex, a school and a township where the villagers would have houses of 550sqft each, irrespective of their previous establishment area.

The company bought 875 acres in 2010 directly from some farmers. The rates decided then were Rs 10 lakh per acre for multi-crop land, Rs 8 lakh per acre for plots close to a road and Rs 4 lakh per acre for plots that yielded a single crop or were away from the road.

On May 15, 2010 — the Left Front was in power in Bengal then — these prices were decided at a meeting where then Birbhum district magistrate Saumitra Mohan, block officials, Trinamul block president of Dubrajpur Ujjwal Ghosh, and an official representing DVC-Emta were present.

The villagers were allegedly angry because they were not called to the meeting and rejected the rates. They said they wanted a face-to-face discussion on the land price and other rehabilitation matters with DVC-Emta officials. Soon, a Loba Krishi Jami Banchao movement sprouted, led by Joydeep Majumdar, who is believed to be a Trinamul supporter.

Majumdar was injured during the clash today. Lying in Suri hospital, he said: “We had written a letter to the chief minister on September 27, 2012, narrating the situation here. We are not against industry but we want rehabilitation.”

In a letter that Majumdar wrote to the chief minister on September 27 this year, he alleged that Emta used “dalals (middlemen)” to buy land — a common fear about land purchase if a government washes its hands of the matter.

When the police reached Loba today, about six villagers were near the excavator machine, guarding it.

The villagers said the police started beating them up.

One of the injured in hospital, housewife Purnima Mondal, said she heard people shouting and went out of her house to see what the commotion was about, when “a bullet hit me in the right leg”.

Three other injured were identified as Shyamal Ghosh, a farmer, Jibon Bagdi, a Class XII student, and Upananda Ghosh, another farmer. Like Purnima, they too were taken to Suri Sadar Hospital.

A doctor at the hospital, requesting anonymity, said: “No bullet was found in any injured person. But from the nature of the injuries of four persons, there appears to have been bullets.”

“When the police came to the spot and launched an attack on the people on guard, around 6,000 villagers came out of their houses and resisted them with whatever they had close at hand, mostly lathis and bricks. The police fired on the villagers and our people were injured,” said Felaram Mondal, a farmer.

“We want Rs 1 crore for an acre. I have 2.5 acres in the project area. They have settled the land price without talking to the landowners. People won’t let go of the machine till Emta settles the price and clears the air on what rehabilitation plan it has for the villagers. If our land is taken how will we survive?” asked Noor Islam, an aged landowner.

In Calcutta, state home secretary Basudeb Banerjee denied that the police had fired. “I’ve seen some media reports where it’s being said that there was police firing. There was none. There was no police firing there. The police showed substantial patience.”

Asked how the police resisted the “attack” without firing a single shot, Banerjee said: “About that, you can draw your own conclusions.”Asked about the matter, DIG Basab Talukdar said: “The law cannot be taken for granted. Police will take action. But about the police raid, I was not aware.”