It is easy for the politics of populism to make some legal orders look like social injustice. In West Bengal the unending struggle between squatters and the courts, municipal authorities or the police are part of vote-bank politics. The Calcutta high court has again had to intervene to help clear land owned by the railways of unauthorized settlers. There are about 65,000 such people living along the tracks between Ballygunge and Tollygunge on the Sealdah-Budge Budge section of the Eastern Railway. The court has been clear and firm about the matter. It has given the railways, police and civic authorities three weeks to achieve something that has been dragging on for some time now. It has also asked the Calcutta Improvement Trust to make known in very specific terms how it proposes to beautify the Dhakuria lakes and develop the area. The latter instance is tied up with the problem of eviction. A huge colony of squatters has developed around Rabindra Sarobar, also on railway property. This is an ecological as well as a law and order problem. The settlements were, of course, illegal; but the squatters were also polluting the waters of the lake. The Howrah Ganatantrik Samity had filed a public interest litigation to this effect, which had, in turn, prompted the Calcutta high court to order the setting up of proper sanitation facilities by the state and Central governments. But this order was then superseded by a Supreme Court eviction order. The development and beautification of the lakes would, of course, depend on the success of that drive.
There were earlier attempts at clearing the railway tracks. Most of them were foiled by the militancy of the squatters, fuelled by the histrionics of the Trinamool Congress chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee. The combined might of the city and railway police forces and the rapid action force failed to carry out the eviction given the organized energy of the squatters. But in the history of foiled or partially successful eviction in and around Calcutta, political parties, whether from the Left Front or the opposition have taken a whole array of positions on the issue, depending on what would be politically advantageous. The Trinamool Congress itself has changed its mind several times on such issues as the eviction of hawkers. Operation Sunshine has become the best example of a legal drive politicized into a farce. The Tolly’s Nullah eviction was one of the few more or less successful eviction drives, achieved against the current of Ms Banerjee’s political inspiration. It remains to be seen whether the court’s firmness in this case can make any difference to Calcutta’s civic and ecological health.