Wanted: 887.14 acres
Where: In the fertile spine of Bengal
Objective: Public purpose, leading to eventual benefits to industry and others
Sounds and smells like Singur but haven’t you heard what it cost Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee?
Yes and no.
The size of the land required is similar to what the Tatas wanted in Singur. The requirement is just 120 acres less than that acquired in Singur.
But it is the government led by Mamata Banerjee, not Bhattacharjee, that has decided to acquire the land for a 231km road-widening project through the fertile belt of Bengal.
The decision marks a change from the hands-off policy of the Mamata government and, if implemented, will mark the largest state-aided acquisition of agrarian land in Bengal since the Nandigram debacle seven years ago.
It will be the first time that the Trinamul government will be exposing itself to a challenge that eventually contributed to the knock-out blow that felled the Left in 2011. “Now it remains to be seen whether the government can successfully acquire the land,” an official said.
Unlike the Singur plots that were clustered together in Hooghly district, the small land parcels required now are spread along what could be termed the spinal cord of the state. (See map)
The scattered nature of the plots presents opportunities as well as threats. It may help avert a sustained movement concentrated in one place — as were the cases with Nandigram and Singur. On the other hand, if the government fails to strike a consensus, it could be staring at several pockets of unrest.
The government is banking on an attractive compensation and rehabilitation package to persuade the landholders to willingly hand over the plots.
A realisation that the hands-off policy is standing in the way of plans to woo investors and the dispirited state of the Left may also have emboldened the government to test-fire the acquisition plan.
But the imponderables are a resurgent BJP and whether the Opposition would let go of an opportunity to pay Trinamul back in its own coin in the run-up to the 2016 Assembly polls, preparations for which are beginning to crystallise.
A senior official confirmed that the government had decided to acquire land for the Rs 4,420-crore project that would connect NH6, better known as Mumbai Road, and NH34, the lifeline to north Bengal.
“The decision to widen the stretch comprising SH4, SH7 (both state highways) and a few district roads has been finalised. The chief minister recently held a meeting with top government officials and the sabhadhipatis of six zilla parishads and gave the project the go-ahead,” an official told The Telegraph.
Anubrata Mondal, the Trinamul Birbhum president credited with delivering both Lok Sabha seats in the district to the party in the recent elections, was present at the meeting, sources said.
The sources said the zilla parishad sabhadhipatis of East and West Midnapore, Hooghly, Burdwan, Birbhum and Murshidabad — the districts the road would pass through — had been asked to play an active role in acquiring land for the project, funded by the Asian Development Bank.
“The chief minister has told us we should ensure that land is acquired peacefully without applying force. We have to do it as the road could give a boost to the entire agrarian belt of Bengal,” said a sabhadhipati who was present at the meeting at Nabanna.
After coming to power in 2011, Mamata had made it clear she would follow a hands-off land policy and not allow any forced acquisition.
Sources, however, said the government might be waking up to the cost. “Industry has suffered and no major investment has come to Bengal because of the firm stand on acquisitionÖ. No infrastructure project has taken off and several projects, like the widening of NH34 and (north Bengal’s) NH31D, suffered,” said an official.
According to officials, the chief minister had agreed to give the go-ahead as the project would connect the state’s vast agrarian belt with NH6 and NH34 and could help develop agro-based industries in this stretch.
“We have to face an election in two years and we need to show something. So far, our focus was to ensure basic rights for the people; now we have to look forward,” a minister said.
“The future of infrastructure projects in Bengal will depend on how the government handles it,” said a city-based industry watcher.
The government appears to be taking cautious steps to pre-empt anti-acquisition protests. “Involving the zilla parishads means the ruling establishment is trying to utilise its political network to prepare the ground for the acquisition. This is something the Left Front government did not explore. It was dependent heavily on the administration,” said an official in the land and land reforms department.
A zilla parishad sabhadhipati said they had been asked to hold discussions with landowners and make them understand the need for the project. “The chief minister does not want forced acquisition. If we can make them realise that the project would help them in the future, I am sure people will not oppose the project,” he said.
A minister said the compensation package, which will be offered under the new Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, would help the government ensure trouble-free acquisition.
Under the new act, a land-loser can get four times the prevailing market price as compensation. Earlier, a land-loser was entitled to only the market price of the land in addition to a 30 per cent solatium. “Better compensation will do the trick, I think,” the minister said.
Some Trinamul MLAs, however, said they were worried about the acquisition decision barely two years ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls.
“The acquisition has to be done in areas rich in agriculture,” said an MLA. “We have so far opposed acquisition of agricultural land for any purpose.”