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Bengal delays China plot, India foots bill

New Delhi, Aug. 3: Mamata Banerjee’s hands-off land policy hasn’t only hit investments in her state, it’s also costing the national exchequer which is forced to pay a rising bill because Bengal has not kept a promise to China.

India has been paying over Rs 2.5 crore a year to China as rent for its consulate in the business hub of Guangzhou despite being offered free land by Beijing six years ago, the foreign office has confirmed to the country’s top auditor.

The reason: the Trinamul government in Bengal has refused to hand over a Calcutta plot its Left predecessor had agreed to as a reciprocal gesture to China, which wants to build a permanent complex for its consulate in Bengal’s capital.

The financial losses — more than Rs 15 crore over a six-year period — have drawn criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General, which presented its report on the foreign office’s property and estate management in Parliament this week.

But more than the money, senior external affairs ministry officials told The Telegraph, it’s the Bengal government’s refusal to honour its commitment that has hurt India — in terms of an embarrassing loss of face.

“We’re almost at the stage of giving up on pursuing the land that was promised to the Chinese consulate,” an official aware of the dispute said.

“We’re now thinking of offering the Chinese something else — possibly additional land somewhere else, like Delhi — in exchange for what we need in Guangzhou. It’s really embarrassing.”

Nations exchange land and built-up property for their missions mostly on condition of reciprocity — most countries do not allow foreign governments to buy land within their territory.

India has consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong apart from an embassy in Beijing. China, other than its embassy in New Delhi, has consulates in Mumbai and Calcutta — one fewer than India’s in China.

India and China swapped tracts of land in their capitals soon after establishing diplomatic relations following the Chinese revolution, and have also exchanged land for the consulates in Mumbai and Shanghai, their respective financial capitals.

India’s extra mission — in Hong Kong — is compensated by the larger area India has handed China for its embassy in New Delhi. China’s embassy, which sits just across the road from America’s, occupies the largest area among all the foreign missions in India’s capital.

In 2007, when India opened its consulate in Guangzhou, the port city that is the principal gateway for China’s exports-driven economy, the two nations agreed to a land swap that would also help China open a consulate in Calcutta.

Both nations opened these consulates on rented property, based on the agreement that they could move to permanent premises once the land swap was complete. India and China both identified the plots they would offer the other by late 2008. The then Left Front government in Bengal picked a plot in Rajarhat.

But while China obtained its domestic clearances for the Guangzhou land and offered it to the Indian consulate as early as 2009, India has still not finalised its offer in Calcutta.

A part of the responsibility lies with the earlier Left government in Bengal that failed to obtain the necessary clearances by 2011, when it lost power to Trinamul. The Left in its last years was extremely jittery about land acquisition after Mamata’s agitation prompted Tata Motors to shift its Nano factory outside Bengal in 2008.

Replying to the CAG’s questions, the foreign office has accepted that the delay “is not a positive reflection on the estate management affairs in the ministry”.

But what Chinese officials say has disappointed them the most is the Mamata government’s decision, after it came to power, to offer the consulate an alternative plot even closer to the airport than Rajarhat.

Chinese foreign ministry regulations, a Chinese diplomat said, forbid missions from functioning out of property close to the take-off and landing paths of commercial airlines - a policy embedded in Chinese fears of nations using low-flying commercial airlines to spy on its missions.

“We have articulated our concerns to both the Indian government in New Delhi and to the West Bengal government, but the state government has not demonstrated willingness to offer us the originally promised land which was fine for us,” the Chinese official said.

Trinamul portrays its land policy as prioritising people over private industrial houses but the glitch over the Chinese consulate has left the Indian taxpayer footing a bill in Guangzhou it shouldn’t need to.