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New Town pipe dream
- Fresh price dispute blocks drainage, water-supply work

A new pocket of resistance has risen in Rajarhat, preventing sewer and water lines from being laid on land allegedly acquired cheap to create infrastructure for highrise projects in which some apartments flaunt Rs 1 crore price tags.

If villagers of Chhapna have kept action areas II and III of the showpiece New Town township in the dark — literally — for two years, residents of nearby Baliguri under Patharghata panchayat have vowed not to let Hidco lay water and sewer lines until they are paid more for their land.

“We want Rs 5 lakh a cottah,” demanded farmer Jan Mohammed, whose nine-bigha plot was “acquired” by the government at Rs 13,500 a cottah in 2002-03.

Mohammed and his family are among the 30 households of Baliguri who have refused to part with their plots for anything less than the current market price despite their land officially ceasing to be theirs seven years ago.

“Flats are being sold for a crore and Hidco wants us to settle for only Rs 13,500 a cottah? That’s unfair,” said Mohammed, pointing towards a highrise project for NRIs that stands adjacent to his plot.

“We will chase them away every time they come here,” added Fazlul Haq, whose family owns several plots.

Hidco needs the disputed 60 bighas to lay water and drainage pipes connecting a clutch of big ticket realty projects, including Uniworld City, Rosedale, Ecospace and Greenwood.

None of the 30 families that together own the 60-bigha zone has yet accepted a rupee from Hidco, prompting the government to deposit the originally fixed compensation amount with the court. Land-acquisition rules provide little scope for revision of compensation once it is fixed, an official said.

Hidco general manager Prodyut Biswas put up a brave front, saying work would resume soon. “The land was acquired in 2002-03 at rates prevailing at the time. So technically the plots no longer belong to the so-called landowners,” he insisted.

In Chhapna, barely 1.5km away, Hidco had struck a deal with a realty company having high stakes in the township to pay Rs 2 lakh a cottah each to farmers whose land was required to set up electricity towers. The villagers pressured those who were offered money to back out of the deal, saying they could accept the revised amount only if all other landowners were similarly compensated.

“Chhapna has been a headache for two years and now we have Baliguri. How can New Town fulfil its promise if something as basic as electricity and water supply cannot be provided?” rued a Hidco official.

So desperate is Hidco that it has even tried setting up electricity towers at Chhapna in the dead of night, hoping work would be over by the time the villagers woke up. The last such attempt, on January 31, had culminated in Hidco workers and the police team guarding them being chased away by villagers after they got wind of the hush-hush operation.

Housing minister Gautam Deb had recently accused Mamata Banerjee of “holding up” New Town’s development, saying she was refusing to co-operate with the government in resolving the land-price dispute.

“The Chhapna crisis took birth when the Patharghata panchayat changed hands from the CPM to the Trinamul Congress in 2008. Now power is in the hands of the landowners,” said Nilotpal Dutta, the secretary of the Rajarhat Jomi Bachao Committee.

So where does that leave the builder and the buyer? “Many projects are almost ready but the buyers cannot move in because there is no electricity, drinking water and drainage. The impasse has also reinforced Bengal’s anti-development image,” said a realtor.

Residents of Chhapna and Baliguri claim their plots were acquired by force. “Hidco officials came here with policemen and CPM supporters to dump truckloads of mud on our farmland,” said a landowner.

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