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East-West Metro in land limbo

- Familiar curse forces split, project to miss deadline

Calcutta, Jan. 4: The Great Land Wall of Bengal has encircled Calcutta, too.

East-West Metro, an ambitious project meant to connect Sector V in Salt Lake to Howrah, will officially miss the deadline and is unofficially headed to the cold storage unless matters change dramatically on the ground.

“The project has missed the 2014 deadline because of the unavailability of land in two stretches. We have divided it into two phases, and the first phase will be delayed by at least one year and the second by at least two,” Hemant Kumar Sharma, the managing director of Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC), said today.

No official would say so but the Rs 4,875-crore project is showing all the signs of joining a growing list of land casualties that is now crowded with the evicted Singur project, the mothballed Katwa power plant and the delayed widening of several key highways in Bengal.

The reason for the grim prognosis is a familiar refrain: the state government is not showing any interest in resolving land-related complications.

Sharma said the one-year delay had already jacked up the project cost by around 5 to 6 per cent.

According to the revised schedule, the first phase from Salt Lake’s Sector V to Sealdah — a 10km stretch — aims to become operational by August 2015. The second phase from Sealdah to Howrah — a 4.74km stretch, including a tunnel under the Hooghly — targets completion by end-2016.

“These deadlines do not look realistic…. If the state government doesn’t help over the land, it is difficult for us to complete the project,” a railway official said.

The state government has already washed its hand of the project by withdrawing from the high court an appeal against the order of a single-judge bench. The judge had instructed the KMRC to return land to 90 families that had challenged the manner in which the KMRC had gone about the acquisition by paying a paltry compensation of Rs 1.9 lakh to each.

The state government’s decision to withdraw from the project stands in sharp contrast to its initial enthusiasm, when the Trinamul Congress held the railway ministry, to remove the hurdles.

“As the government was keen on the project’s speedy completion, it tried to fast-track the transfer of its shares in the KMRC to the railway ministry. The railways now own 74 per cent stake and the Union urban development ministry 26 per cent, which makes it a cent per cent central project,” said an official.

In between, the complexion of the railway ministry — and the UPA itself — changed.

“Trinamul is no longer part of the Union government…. Adhir Chowdhury, a sworn enemy of Mamata, is the junior railway minister. How do you expect the state government to facilitate the project’s completion?” asked the official.

However, till a few months ago, East-West Metro was a dream project for the Trinamul government. The state government and the Union urban development department, where Saugata Roy was then junior minister, had tried hard to resolve the land-related problems.

The bumps had cropped up on two stretches — Duttabad in Salt Lake and Bowbazar in central Calcutta — and the state government promptly tried to address the issue by offering alternative plots. Senior Trinamul leaders met residents of Duttabad several times and tried to persuade them to shift elsewhere.

In September 2012, the state government had hired RITES, a railway undertaking, to carry out a survey for a new route along Laldighi, Esplanade and Nirmal Chunder Street in an attempt to bypass the land hassle at Bowbazar.

“We had the mandate that the project should not face any hurdles and we were asked to be accommodative,” said a senior KMRC official. The “accommodative” spirit — missing when projects like the Nano plant and others fell victim to land politics — evaporated as soon as Trinamul dumped the UPA.

The railways are now resigned to charting a lonely course. “We will continue opposing the order passed by the single-judge bench as we are not sure whether it will be feasible to realign the route,” said an official.

Route realignment is almost impossible as the Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC), which is providing Rs 2,200 crore for the project, has made it clear to the KMRC that it was not in favour of such a change.

“JBIC sent a letter stating that it was committed to the timely and successful completion of the project. If the project is delayed, it will review its position,” said a KMRC official.

The official added that if the railways still wanted to go ahead with the project by incorporating route realignment, the deadline would be pushed back even further as it would require a fresh pitch with the Planning Commission for more funds.

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