| A woman watches her house burn. (AFP) n See Metro
Calcutta, Dec. 10: Payloaders rumbled today in the biggest clean-up drive since Operation Sunshine as the Bengal government cleared a nearly 2.5-km stretch along the clogged Beliaghata canal, fighting flames leaping out of houses set ablaze by their evicted occupants.
The drive displayed the Left Front’s new-found resolve — first evident during Operation Sunshine in November 1996 when hawkers were swept off pavements — as it dwarfed the Tolly’s Nullah clean-up a few months ago in terms of the number of people evicted. At the end of the more than six-hour operation, nearly 20,000 stood homeless.
Development in the stretch along the 200-year-old canal in Calcutta’s eastern parts has been clogged by illegal settlement. The government had planned to launch the drive a month ago but deferred it because of Ramazan.
Today, however, pleas from rights groups that the drive be postponed again because of International Human Rights Day failed to move the authorities as payloaders mowed down settlements extending from Ghaznabi Setu on Narkeldanga Main Road to Chaulpatti along Canal West Road.
The evicted families returned to salvage anything they could from the remains of the 2,500-odd structures that had been their home till nine this morning when the drive started. Promised Rs 2,000 by the government to begin a new life, they gave vent to their anger by making a bonfire of their homes.
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear a petition challenging the eviction.
The government has grand plans for Calcutta’s canals — most of them built by the British to ward off Maratha marauders. It wants to provide alternative means of transport to traffic-choked Calcutta and Beliaghata canal, which links the north and the east, forms an important part of these plans, officials say.
The government had been equally uncompromising during the Tolly’s Nullah operation despite the protests of Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamul Congress leader was not there today — she was recuperating at a south Calcutta nursing home.
The rights groups, as also a small CPI delegation, tried to make up for her absence. Calcutta Hawkers’ Sangram Committee general secretary Shaktiman Ghosh and leaders of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights tried to resist the demolish squad. But a quiet word from deputy commissioners Piyush Pandey (detective department, special) and Sanjay Mukherjee (eastern suburban division) that there was enough force at hand and they being “gentlemen” should see reason had the desired effect.
After vowing to resist the demolition “at any cost”, both groups chickened out, with only 19 people courting arrest.
Urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya said the drive would resume tomorrow.
n See Metro