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Planters near Siliguri cry land grab

Siliguri, Feb. 10: Tea planters have expressed concern over the rising trend of encroachment on garden land close to Siliguri by a section of local people allegedly backed by real estate dealers.

The issue was taken up yesterday at the 84th annual general meeting of the Terai Indian Planters’ Association at Matigara.

“There have been a number of incidents where fallow (unused) land within the tea estates have been encroached upon by the land mafia who are also involved in commercial transaction by way of sale and purchase (of land),” said S. Panwar, the chairman of the association.

“I would urge the government to take stern steps to arrest the situation and make the encroached areas free so that the management can execute their lawful operation.”

Dagapur, Sukna, Mohorgong-Gulma and New Chumta gardens, all within 10km radius of Siliguri, are facing the problem of encroachment.

“Some non-workers, like the family members of the garden labourers, in connivance with some other local people are involved in the illegal work. The activity has the planters worried as the trend can lead to grabbing of more and more land and entry of outsiders in the gardens. This can cause problems, affect the law and order and regular work at the gardens,” U.B Das, the association secretary, said.

Although planters said the rate of encroachment had increased over the years, no data were available on the amount of unused land in the Terai gardens or how much had been encroached upon.

Terai has 70 estates.

“The encroachers are setting up pillars, building huts and settling in the areas in a completely illegal manner. We have sought intervention from the administration. In some cases, steps have been taken. But there is a lot more to do to to discourage this trend,” Das said.

Sources said planters in the Terai had written to the Siliguri subdivisional officer about the problem several times for over a year.

“The erstwhile Chandmoni tea estate, which was developed as a township (in 2001-02), is a glaring example of how a garden has had to make way for real estate (business). Considering the quantity of land held on lease by tea estates like Dagapur and Mohorgong-Gulma, these would become targets of the land mafia. The trend of encroachment is only a prelude to an attempt to gain control over the land of these gardens,” said a senior planter from the region.

Dagapur, Sukna, Mohorgong-Gulma and New Chumta gardens have between 500 and 1,000 hectares.

“If the management tries to evict the encroachers, there can be law and order problems. As some workers’ families are involved (in the land deals), there are chances of labour disputes that might cause the closure of the gardens. This is what the land grabbers want. Once a garden is shut, it is easy for the realtors to prove the management’s failure to run the estate and draw up strategies to take over the land,” said the planter.

Abhijit Majumdar of the CPIML, who had protested against encroachment in Chandmoni, said: “It is not that there are land sharks in every garden. There are reports that some planters are also trying to sell off fallow land of the gardens instead of utilising the plots We will oppose such moves.”

North Bengal development minister Gautam Deb said: “Our government has a clear policy and we would not encourage encroachment by vested interests and discourage any attempt to jeopardise commercial activities, including the smooth running of tea estates. The administration has been clearly instructed to see that land is not grabbed illegally.”

He added: “In case there are poor people living on leased out land without rights, our government has taken up a specific scheme to provide them with land rights and assistance to build houses on the plots.”