The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On two sides of the great land divide

Price Azim Premji has been asked to shell out: Rs 2.16 crore an acre, then Rs 1.81 crore an acre

Price Churamoni Naskar has been given to part with his land: Rs 360,000 an acre

One is the richest Indian, the other owns a tiny tea stall. One wants to expand his business empire, the other worries about roti-kapda-makaan.

But they share one common concern ' the bargain they are getting for land in Rajarhat, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's showpiece New Town.

'We are farmers and land is our biggest asset. But the government acquired it and paid us peanuts,' Naskar narrates the tale of 'betrayal' in between attending to customers at his run-down tea stall in Jatragachi.

Premji, who has plans to buy land in Rajarhat, is also peeved with the price. It's a strange situation for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his party ' neither the farmers nor the potential buyers are happy with the rate.

'For Wipro, Hidco has agreed to sell the land at Rs 1.81 crore per acre. But even that's too high for the company and we are trying to reduce it further,' promises state IT minister Debesh Das.

But Naskar's fate is sealed as the government has already paid him Rs 360,000 for his three-bigha (1 acre) holding. A farmer for over 40 years, 65-year-old Naskar now runs a tea stall, barely a 10-minute drive from the hustle-bustle of New Town. The who's who from the world of realty ' Shapoorji Palonji, DLF, Ascendas, Unitech ' are setting up mega complexes in Rajarhat for high-tech companies and high net worth families.

But rejuvenation of brand Bengal hardly matters to Naskar and his customers, who gather at the tea stall every day and discuss their plight.

Housing minister Goutam Deb, who doubles as Hidco chairman, the nodal agency carrying out land acquisition in Rajarhat, claims that the government has given farmers a fair deal.

He defends the high selling price as well. 'We are transferring the land after developing it and creating support infrastructure, which involves a cost,' Deb explains.

According to a city-based real estate developer, the cost of peripheral facilities ' roads, street lights, sewers ' is around Rs 10 to Rs 15 lakh per acre while the cost of land filling depends on the height of the land. 'But the total development expense cannot be more than Rs 25 to Rs 30 lakh,' he says.

The majority of the 4-lakh-plus population, spread across 25 mouzas in Rajarhat, is not interested in these calcula- tions. For them the question is that of livelihood. 'First, they took away farmland, and now they want residential land. We have received notices to attend a hearing to fix price of residential land. I have refused to go there,' says Nepal Mondol, busy playing cards on a lazy July afternoon. Circling the players are 15-20 men, who till a few years ago were farmers.

Chatur Biswas is one of them, who used to grow two crops a year. 'We stopped farming in 2000 as the government acquired the 12 bighas we had in our family. We got compensation at a rate of Rs 6,000 per cottah, which was shared by eight claimants. But I have consumed almost the entire sum in the last six years,' laments Biswas.

Biswas doesn't have skills beyond farming. A game of cards helps pass the time, its uncertainties matching those of his life.

While acquiring land, the farmers were told that the construction boom would create jobs. The multiplier hasn't worked and Biswas has lost hope.

Rabin Mondol, former chairman of the Neighbourhood Committee ' set up for skill enhancement of farmers ' and sitting CPM MLA, says the government had never promised jobs. 'We talked about developing skills and we did conduct training sessions to make young people in the area computer literate. We have also helped some of them in marketing handicraft items,' Mondol says.

But the majority of the 4-lakh-plus population in the nine panchayats in Rajarhat prefer being farmer than being self-employed. In Mohammedpur, a mouza at a distance from action-packed Rajarhat, land acquisition has not started, but people are spending sleepless nights following the March 2005 missive freezing land registration in the area.

This is a standard government measure to ensure a better deal for the farmers as property developers buy up the land from farmers at lower prices than what the government pays as soon as they sniff out an acquisition plan.

But according to Ansar-ud-din Ahmed, a resident of Mohammedpur, the freeze hasn't yielded any benefits for them.

'I grow three crops a year on my land, but I would get Rs 15,000 per cottah. Had I known this, I could have sold this land at Rs 50,000 per cottah two years ago,' he repents.

It's too late for Ansar as he has to sell it to the government. But Premji still has hope. And, for the government, Rajarhat is a warning as it embarks on an industrialisation and urbanisation project on a scale not seen in Bengal before. Islands of discontent could one day converge.

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