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Mamata betrays land nerves

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By ARNAB GANGULY
  • Published 1.02.12
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Gosaba, Jan. 31: Mamata Banerjee today lent her voice to a pitch to facilitate land acquisition for a life-saving project — an uncommon plea that betrayed the government’s frustration at the slow pace despite the urgency and the promise of generous compensation.

The chief minister persuaded the people of Sunderbans to offer their land to build embankments in low-lying areas of South 24-Parganas, which were devastated by the Aila cyclone in 2009.

The embankment project is the only one for which Mamata has given the nod for land acquisition. However, acquisition has not made much headway — a telling situation at a time industry has been saying little could be done without active government intervention.

Mamata told the 5,000-plus gathering at the ground near the Gosaba block development office that another disaster like Aila could spell doom for the people living in the southern-most district, bordering the Bay of Bengal.

“Nearly three years have passed since Aila hit these parts of Bengal. Around Rs 5,032 crore sanctioned by the Centre has been lying unutilised. Work is yet to start and the money could go back to the Centre. If another natural disaster strikes, more people will lose their lives,” Mamata said.

Last year, Mamata had tried to sweeten the deal for land losers by promising compensation at market rates and one government job to each land-loser family.

South 24-Parganas zilla parishad sabhadhipati Shamima Sheikh today blamed Opposition parties for the impasse.

“People are being misled about the compensation package…. I will request everybody to come forward and help the government in building the embankments so that the Sunderbans can be saved,” Shamima said before Mamata took the dais.

The Telegraph had recently reported the degree of difficulty in acquiring land as out of the 6,000 acres required for the project, 4,000 acres were occupied by people without valid documents.

“Many people are not willing to part with their land as land is scarce in the Sunderbans. Besides, as most of the people do not have proper documents, they are not sure whether they are eligible for compensation and government jobs,” said a senior official.

Mamata today tried to explain the urgency of completing the project before the next monsoon — the time when rivers swell and flood the villages — and warned the villagers that they would have to pay a price for allowing politics to stall land acquisition.

“If the work is not completed and money goes back, those who are playing politics over land acquisition for the embankments will not be affected. Ordinary people will suffer… I will request the officials to ensure speedy utilisation of funds,” said the chief minister, who laid the foundation stone for two cyclone shelters.

Government sources said that Mamata has asked government officials to hold meetings with the people and convince them about the necessity of the project and the merits of the compensation package.

“Around Rs 1,300 crore has been made available for the project, but it is lying unused. If the money is not utilised, the project will suffer. It will be difficult to convince the Centre about the reasons behind the delay and seek more funds in the future,” said a government official accompanying the chief minister.

In a bid to placate the villagers, Mamata announced a number of infrastructure-related projects — especially in the power sector — and promised to give a big push to develop tourism in the district.

“Jyoti Basu came here as a tourist. I have come to give you something,” she said.

The chief minister said that electrification in Sagar islands will be completed in two years. According to her, the government has sanctioned Rs 30 crore for the electrification of Sagar and another Rs 67 crore for Muriganga. For electrification of 54 villages in Kultali, Gosaba, Rs 28.94 crore has been sanctioned. She also announced the intention to set up a 133KV sub-station in Kakdwip by this year.

“I am here to see what can be done. Tourism department is taking up a big project for developing Jharkhali, Bakkhali, Gosaba, Sagar island, Namkhana, Pathar Pratima as tourist destinations. The World Bank is also likely to fund the project. A team has come from Delhi to look into the prospects. Once the project is completed hotels will come up, connectivity will improve, markets will develop and bring work for the locals,” Mamata said.