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Walkout II: from East-West Metro
Writers’ washes hands of land-dispute case

The Mamata Banerjee government has thrown the baby out with the bath water, withdrawing from the East-West Metro project on the grounds that it is no longer part of the UPA and therefore not responsible for any hitch.

The Rs 4,875-crore project, which if completed would benefit lakhs of commuters braving chaotic road traffic every day, plunged into uncertainty when Calcutta High Court on Thursday granted the state government’s appeal to withdraw its petition challenging a stay on the eviction of 90 families from a stretch of the proposed route.

“We don’t have a stake in the project, so we have withdrawn our appeal. We have nothing to do with it now,” a lawyer representing the state government said.

The railway ministry, once held by Trinamul, is now with the Congress and Adhir Chowdhury, one of chief minister Mamata’s more vociferous critics, is a junior railway minister.

When Trinamul was still part of the UPA, the state government had moved a division bench of the high court against an order by a single-judge bench to return some of the properties it had acquired in Bowbazar for the project connecting Sector V in Salt Lake with Howrah.

According to the original plan, the Garia-Dum Dum and East-West Metro routes were to converge in Bowbazar. The government had acquired land and buildings from 90 families in that area against compensation of Rs 1,90,000 each, announced on November 15, 2011.

The families moved court against the acquisition and the Kolkata Metro Railway Corporation, under instruction from Writers’, decided on a realignment of the route to avoid legal hassles.

Plan B entailed avoiding Bowbazar by laying the tracks along Laldighi, Esplanade and Nirmal Chunder Street, but the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the main funding agency for the project, objected to it.

“Around 27 per cent of the work has been completed and Rs 1,070 crore spent. The main funding agency has written to us, raising objections to any change in the alignment of the route,” a senior railway official said.

A change in route would have increased the project cost by around Rs 250 crore. “Since the government could neither raise that amount on its own nor revert to the original plan, it decided to challenge the single-judge bench’s order,” the official said.

Everything changed once Mamata pulled out of the UPA. Suddenly, the Trinamul government was not interested in litigation and the railways didn’t know how to get the project back on the rails.

The project is facing trouble in Salt Lake’s Duttabad neighbourhood too. Around 150 families have refused to vacate land for the elevated stretch of the project.

The authorities have requested political parties to try and persuade the families to move out but there has been little progress.

The political and economic hurdles have almost made it certain that the first phase of the project won’t be able to meet the 2014 deadline.

“It would be difficult for us to pull this off without the state government’s help,” the railway official said.

Union minister of state Chowdhury declared that the railways would continue the legal battle. “The railway ministry will fight the case on its own now. It is unfortunate that the state government has stopped assisting us in the implementation of the project and turned down our request to fight the case in court,” he said.

Even if the railways were to decide not to ask the Japan Bank for International Cooperation for more funds, it won’t be able to raise the additional Rs 250 crore required for a route realignment. For that, it needs to approach the Planning Commission, and that will take time.

The state government and the Union urban development ministry were at first equal stakeholders in the East-West Metro project. It was Mamata who initiated the move to transfer the state government’s stake to the railways during her tenure as rail minister. The formal handover was decided late last year at a meeting of the Union and state governments.