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Hands-off policy’s everyday hostages

- North Bengal’s highway crisis and fallout show how govt’s land stand is taking a toll on daily life

Nov. 25: The Bengal government’s hands-off land policy is no longer an esoteric issue with long-term implications.

It has acquired a “here-and-now” immediacy on long stretches in north Bengal, affecting the everyday life of countless ordinary people, hampering the economy-sustaining tourism and tea operations in the region and stirring a cauldron of social unrest that feeds on a feeling of neglect.

Consider the statistics:

Of the 879km of national highways passing through north Bengal, at least 370km are in poor condition and need urgent repair, according to state public works department (PWD) officials.

Vast stretches of roads spread across six districts, including Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, are virtually unnavigable because some belts cannot be widened for lack of land.

Over 1.72 crore people are affected because of the failure to complete repairs.

The condition of roads is primarily held responsible for accidents that caused over 100 deaths in a little over six months.

Besides life, the sources of livelihood have also been hit. Tea and tourism are getting affected because of the slow movement of vehicles and regular damage to them.

Unlike south Bengal, where the rail network is more extensive, the north depends largely on roadways for transport.

The perception of neglect is already stoking the embers of civil unrest. In August, common people joined hands with transporters to mount roadblocks in Jalpaiguri and stage demonstrations on the outskirts of Siliguri.

Over several weeks, The Telegraph spoke to many government officials, transporters, contractors and residents of the region to get to the bottom of the problem that affects people every single day.

Policy paralysis

Almost the entire stretches of NH34 and NH31D, maintained by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) in north Bengal, need urgent repairs but land acquisition is standing in the way.

The two highways have to be converted from two lanes to four lanes because the volume of traffic has gone up. Four-laning means widening the road, which requires land.

When a two-lane road takes more than 15,000 passenger cars daily, it has to be converted into a four-lane highway, according to NHAI calculations.

Two years ago, around 12,000 vehicles were found plying on NH34 daily, which led to a decision to widen the two double-lane north Bengal highways built 15 to 20 years ago. A four-lane highway can take up to 40,000 passenger cars a day.

The NHAI had started a project to four-lane the highways two years ago but the state government, under the Left as well as Trinamul, could not arrange for land.

The NHAI says it needs 1,760 hectares to widen the national highways across the state, including NH34 and NH31D. It has so far been given possession of only 34 hectares — a meagre 1.93 per cent of the requirement.

Specifically, NH34 requires 826.67 hectares and NH31D 504.03 hectares to be converted into four-lane highways. An official said no land had been handed over for these two highways till August-end.

The earlier government had notified a declaration to acquire 1,270 hectares two years ago. “But the Left government did little to take possession of the land by announcing compensation for the landlosers,” said an official at Writers’. The then government was spooked by the stiff resistance from Trinamul which had transformed land into a lightning rod in Bengal.

Disquiet in the hills also played a role. Mamata has managed to bring peace to the hills but not land for widening roads.

A senior NHAI official said: “We are ready to start the projects as soon as land is made available to us. But it is tough for us to get funds sanctioned for repairs for the interim period.”

Maintenance mess

The NHAI official’s comment touches upon a ripple effect of the land lock and an economic factor associated with repairs. As the project to widen the highways ground to a halt, no significant maintenance could be undertaken over the past two years, officials said.

A PWD report on two other roads — NH31 and NH31C — gives a description of the outcome of lack of maintenance. “No thorough work has been taken up in this portion during last six years except some patchwork. Existing hard crust (black top surface) is unable to withstand the gradually increasing traffic load,” says the report.

Some PWD officials said the Union ministry concerned wanted to focus on widening roads and was not keen to provide funds to maintain two-lane roads.

Kshiti Goswami, PWD minister in the erstwhile Left government, said: “Delhi had repeatedly informed us that they were ready to widen roads while denying funds for repairing two-lane highways. If we have to keep the national highways in good condition, we have to go for widening the roads. This is the future and it is unavoidable.”

According to officials at Writers’, two-lane roads are maintained by the PWD in the state and no toll is levied on these roads. “That’s why the Union ministry has little interest in investing money on maintenance,” said an official.

When the roads are converted into four-lane ones through concessionaires, they are allowed to levy toll. “Once they start collecting the toll, the concessionaires are liable to maintain the roads for a particular period, say 15 to 20 years,” said an official.

“For this, the NHAI has to be given land — the most precious commodity in Bengal now. The problem has to be solved if the state wants to go forward,” Goswami said.

Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar, the PWD minister in the new government, said he was aware of the problem. “We have to find a solution. We will look for an alternative where roads cannot be widened owing to resistance from the land owners,” Ghosh Dastidar said.

Ticking away

Another ripple effect is also in the making and will kick in if NH34 and NH31D are eventually widened. “The impact would be felt on many roads in the region and they will also have to be widened. If the state does not change its policy, the road network is bound to collapse there,” said a PWD official.

He explained: “Once NH34 is converted into four lanes, the number of cars is estimated to go up to 30,000 a day. The additional vehicle load will have to be shared by highways like NH31 and NH31C as Assam-bound vehicles will use these roads.”

Perceived apathy

A regional element too has crept up on the infrastructure problem.

Ever since the Left lost the Lok Sabha polls in 2009, the lameduck government had stopped pushing for funds for north Bengal projects. “From 2009-10, the average funds sanctioned under the annual plan for north Bengal were less than Rs 100 crore while the requirement was much more,” an official said.

Senior PWD officials said that successive governments had never pushed north Bengal projects ahead of those for south Bengal.

“This is perhaps because the southern part of the state produces more powerful leaders than the north. Asok Bhattacharya was the only powerful minister in the cabinet from the north when the Left was in power. Now Gautam Deb is the sole powerful leader from the north in the cabinet,” said an official.

Over the last five years, south Bengal has received an average Rs 150 crore every year for repairing roads while the figure for north Bengal never crossed Rs 80 crore a year. “In 2011-12, south Bengal received Rs 215 crore while north Bengal got only Rs 13 crore,” the official added.

Not that road-widening projects in the south have not been hit by the land scare — repairs for a 300km stretch of NH34 that falls in south Bengal are also stuck. But all the key national highways (NH2, NH6, NH41, NH60) in south Bengal have already been converted into four-lane roads.

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