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In black and white: no forcible acquisition

- State departments fret about the fate of public-purpose projects

Calcutta, Dec. 17: An order from the land reforms commissioner to secretaries of all 56 departments telling them to stay off land acquisition has made it clear that Mamata Banerjee has hardened her hands-off land policy, ignoring pleas from industry for a government role in acquisition.

The November 27 order from R.D. Meena’s office said: “The chief minister and minister in charge of land and land reforms department have desired that as per stated policy of the present government, there should not be any forceful acquisition of land for any project. She further desires that all departments should follow this policy strictly.”

The order would mean that the state government would not acquire land even for essential projects. This is a departure from the government’s earlier stand that did not rule out land acquisition for critical projects such as erecting embankments, widening roads and laying railway tracks.

The order has put several state departments, such as irrigation and public works, in a fix as government help in land acquisition is required for erecting embankments along rivers or for expanding highways.

The departments have sent acquisition proposals to the cabinet as the state’s land policy had approved acquisition for public-purpose projects. The policy was prepared by a two-member committee headed by former land reforms commissioner turned Trinamul MP Debabrata Bandopadhyay.

For example, the irrigation department sent proposals to the cabinet to acquire about 2,000 acres — till now only 500 acres have been acquired — for embankments in the Sunderbans. Similarly, PWD officials are eagerly awaiting government help to hand over around 1,760 hectares (around 4,300 acres) to the National Highways Authority of India for road-widening. It has managed to get only 34 hectares (84 acres).

“Acquisition notices for such projects were issued as the state’s land policy approved it. Though the process was progressing slowly, we were trying to proceed. But now, the order has put an end to all such projects,” said an official at Writers’.

According to him, the bureaucracy was hopeful about the availability of land for infrastructure projects as the state’s land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement bill included “liberal” provisions for infrastructure projects.

Section 36 of the bill stated that in case of urgency or essential public purpose, such as construction of roads, bridges, railway lines, embankments and hospitals, the state would be able to acquire land without facing much trouble.

As the bill is yet to be placed in the Assembly, senior government officials said the departments have no other option than to withdraw from land acquisition after getting the notice. “If public-purpose projects can be under threat, one can imagine the fate of private investment in Bengal,” an official said.

Infrastructure experts feel that the order would spell disaster for the state as an investment destination. “It will have a long-term effect on Bengal’s economy as infrastructure projects will come to a halt,” said a city-based infrastructure consultant.

A cabinet minister told The Telegraph: “It was our stated policy that we won’t acquire land forcibly. The chief minister has repeatedly announced that land for projects would be made available from state’s land bank.”

But infrastructure experts said roads and bridges cannot be built on land available in the land bank, the details of which still remain hazy. Land parcels available in the bank do not have large tracts of contiguous land. “A school or a hospital could be built where land is available. But to its not possible to build a road or embankment with land available in the bank,” said an infrastructure expert.