Statue tussle in town of kings

TMC salute to late civic chief Biren Kundu upsets rivals

By Avijit Sinha
  • Published 18.04.15
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The statue of Biren Kundu on the left and Bidhan Roy on the right outside the Cooch Behar municipality office. Picture by Main Uddin Chisti

Cooch Behar, April 15: Cooch Behar, the land of kings, has a problem with a statue.

The statue is not of Hirak Raja - the evil king of diamonds whose lofty statue was brought down by the people - but of Biren Kundu, the former municipal chairman who occupied the post for almost 20 years till he died and had repeatedly been accused by his rivals of misappropriating public money.

The statue has been erected by Trinamul outside the municipality office, beside that of Bidhan Chandra Roy, Bengal's first chief minister.

In 2013, Kundu switched to Trinamul with six Congress councillors that allowed the state's ruling party to take over the civic body.

Since 1995, Kundu had helmed the municipality. After the 2010 results, Congress and Trinamul had joined hands to run the board, till Kundu defected.

On August 13, 2014, Kundu passed away of liver and kidney ailments in a nursing home in Delhi.

Trinamul's salute to Kundu has upset many residents, as well as the CPM and the BJP, which have repeatedly accused him of misappropriating civic funds.

There was no case of graft against Kundu in court but social workers and political rivals said municipal audits had repeatedly thrown up anomalies.

"There were alleged anomalies over distribution of stalls after the municipality developed Bhawaniganj market, the largest market of Cooch Behar town, after it was gutted in a fire in 2003," Nikhil Ranjan Dey, a BJP candidate for this civic election on April 25, said. "On March 2007, a shopkeeper hanged himself after he was not allotted the stall in the same location where he had his shop before the fire."

The allegation was that the chairman had taken money from some traders to give them better stalls in the newly-made market complex, as a result of which other smaller traders had suffered.

A social worker in Cooch Behar town, who did not want to be named for fear of Trinamul, said that in a drainage project, the civic body used bricks instead of concrete to cut costs. Second, money was taken to pay workers for the drainage project, "but on the other hand, it was shown that the workers were engaged under the employment scheme for rural areas". "Over Rs 94 lakh was paid to contractors, which include payment to the workers, but another sum of Rs 36 lakh was withdrawn for workers' payment also."

The source said: "A firm which supplied bricks for a project was given an advance of Rs 3.56 crore, but the firm supplied bricks worth Rs 1.31 crore. It is a mystery why the civic body paid over Rs 2 crore extra to the firm."

The Left's leader of Opposition Mahananda Saha said: "There were several anomalies in the functioning of the former civic boards headed by Biren Kundu and we have, time and again, raised these issues."

"Since our childhood days, we have seen statues of Koch kings, social reformers and freedom fighters being installed in different corners of Cooch Behar town. But the manner in which Trinamul put up the statue of Biren Kundu, it has belittled the heritage of Cooch Behar," Dey said.

"It is an open secret that Kundu switched to Trinamul to prevent legal steps from being taken against him for the corruption accusations. We protested the installation of the statue and have made it clear in our campaign that if we are voted to power, and the former chairman's involvement is found during any investigation of corruption, we will remove his statue," Dey said.

The full-figure statue of Kundu was installed on March 9 this year.

"There is hardly a precedence in Bengal of a statue of a former civic chairman, against whom accusations of corruption were raised, being put up. Trinamul has endorsed corruption by installing this statue. We had objected to it but they did not listen," said Saha.

A section of residents agreed with the BJP and the Left's view that the statue was no required, but their reasons for objecting were different.

"The statue does not suit the location. There is the statue of Bidhan Chandra Roy next to it and statues of Vidyasagar and Kshudiram Bose nearby. I feel it was inappropriate to install the former chairman's statue," said Debabrata Chaki, a writer and columnist who resides in the town. "The civic board should have instead focused on improvement of civic services which Biren Kundu had always insisted on while working as chairman. It would have been an ideal show of respect to him."

Uttara Sen, a homemaker, said that "educated people in the town did not like the idea of installing Biren Kundu's statue".

Not all Trinamul leaders are happy, either.

"We realised that it was probably not appropriate to install the statue. A clear message has been passed from the party that we do not endorse it. The decision was taken by the municipality and Kundu's family," said Jalil Ahmed, a vice-president of the Cooch Behar district Trinamul. Jalil is one of the party leaders who had opposed the installation of the statue.

But another section of the Trinamul, however, is not ready to buy the theory that bitterness over the statue and the current civic problems might affect its prospects.

"People have seen the extensive development works carried out by the state government since 2011. The former chairman had done a lot for the town and installation of his statue will not provide any extra leverage to other parties," said Rabindranath Ghosh, the Cooch Behar district president. "Those in the Opposition can read the writing on the wall. People will pass a clear mandate in our favour. The contest is on serious civic issues and development and not on trifle agendas."

The Congress is too beleaguered to put up a protest - the party that was in control of the town's municipality could not put up a candidate in one seat.

The municipality has 20 seats, eight of which the Congress had won in 2010, Three went to Trinamul, and the Left got 9. Trinamul and the Congress jointly formed the board.

This time, Kundu's wife Reba and son Subhajit are contesting from Trinamul.

Subhajit, the Trinamul candidate from ward 11, is confident his party will form the board. Reba is contesting from ward 12.

Her campaign posters carry Kundu's photo. The posters address the former civic chairman as " karmaveer (hard-working)".

"There is no doubt that Trinamul will secure the majority. People are well aware of the contribution of my father in developing Cooch Behar," Subhajit said.

CPM leader Saha, however, said: "Several anomalies in the civic body during the regime of Biren Kundu have been flashed in the media. Voters are asking why his statue was put up, and why both his son and wife were given nominations."

Dey, the district BJP leader, on the other hand, said Trinamul had encouraged Kundu's "legacy" of corruption by nominating his wife and son.

A section of residents said the Cooch Behar civic area lacked maintenance of roads and drains, most of these built before 1949 before the princely state merged with Bengal.

The rise in population and multi-storied residential buildings has led to congestion, inadequate drainage and erratic drinking water supply.

"No proper planning to expand the town has been made yet. Introduction of battery-operated rickshaws without any checks has aggravated the situation. We are fortunate that the roads and crossings build during the king's rule are wide. Otherwise, things would have been worse," said schoolteacher Biplab Das.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAIN UDDIN CHISTI