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Road plan hits land hurdle

- Farmers refuse to give plots in Jungle Mahal

Dec. 23: The Mamata Banerjee government’s hands-off land acquisition policy has halted a 1,500km road project in West Midnapore’s Jungle Mahal though the area has got the highest one-time central assistance in over a decade.

Officials of the public works department (PWD), which is implementing the project, said the Union rural development ministry last year sanctioned Rs 500 crore following a request from the chief minister. The money was sent under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY).

But work was stopped after 200km of road was laid because of the unwillingness of farmers to part with land.

PWD officials said they were worried about the fate of the project because of the state government’s declared policy that there would not be forcible land acquisition.

Last week, the land reforms commissioner sent a note to secretaries of all 56 departments telling them to stay off land acquisition.

A PWD official said today: “Only a few months are left for the completion of this fiscal year. It is impossible for us to convince farmers to part with their land by then.”

PWD sources said about 2,000 acres would have to be acquired for laying the remaining 1,300km of road.

A Bengal Congress leader said the state government was “dragging its feet” on the project. “In this financial year, the Centre sanctioned funds to construct 1,500km of roads whereas in the 12 years before that, funds had been sanctioned to build 1,390km of roads. The state government has failed to utilise the opportunity,” the leader said.

A PWD official said: “Even though this is a public-purpose project, the government has failed to convince the farmers about its benefits.”

According to the PWD officials, in large parts of Jungle Mahal, including Keshpur, Chandrakona, Gopiballavpur, Sankrail, Nayagram and Belpahari, villagers have “flatly refused” to part with their land.

“The villagers have said they won’t give land for the project. They are saying the chief minister has repeatedly told farmers that land is their livelihood and property. Some of them are planning to approach court if land is acquired forcibly,” the PWD official said.

Bimal Samanta of Chandrakona said he and his family would be “finished” if their land was taken away. “I own three bighas, of which the state government wants two bighas as the proposed road will pass through my land. I will be left with only one bigha. What will I do with it?,” he said.

If the project is not finished by March, the Bengal government would have to bear the additional cost that could be incurred because of the delay in implementation, a source said.

“The state will have to inform the Centre that it will bear the additional cost. Only if that is approved by the Centre can work begin again. That means a whole lot of delay,” a PWD engineer said.