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The extensive highways in New Town at Rajarhat, a township on the fringes of this city, are dotted with sporadic high-rise buildings housing a remarkably high number of young office workers. However, the concept of a modern township is belied by vast open fields, which, incidentally, are also some of the largest grazing grounds in the city.
Long before Singur and Nandigram virtually defined the words ‘land acquisition’ in West Bengal, Rajarhat symbolised half-realised dreams, poor administrative planning, political strife and, above all, an impromptu land acquisition drive. The earlier government in the state (the Left Front government) had acquired about 7,500 acres across 40 villages in Rajarhat.
Close to the DLF Erricson building, an information technology special economic zone in New Town, is Patharghata village. Here, almost all villagers allege they lost their farmlands to the government. Resentment for land acquired more than a decade ago is still extant, as most of the land was acquired without informing the owners, locals say. “Land was acquired overnight, and we got notices after our land was taken away. The government even bulldozed houses to acquire the land,” said Abutallah Mondal, who once owned 25 bighas in the area.
However, the primary cause of resentment among land losers in Patharghata is the meagre compensation they received. Most of the land in New Town was acquired for Rs 3 lakh an acre, almost half the market price of Rs 6 lakh an acre at that time.
Earlier, Rajarhat had fertile, arable land, with crops grown three times a year. This gave farmers good returns. Soon after the land acquisition, the government installed water pump sets under the river-lifting irrigation scheme. However, Patharghata villagers say these were later removed. Under the river-lifting irrigation scheme, farmers were supplied water at subsidised rates.
The government’s abrupt land acquisition resulted in farmers taking up contract labour, housekeeping and security jobs. “The cost of living has gone up, while our incomes have gone down. We voted for the present government hoping we would get back our land or be compensated for it, as land had been forcibly taken away from us at throwaway prices. However, currently, there is a deadlock, and we are between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Foridul Islam, a land loser in the village.
Though the Mamata Banerjee government has been in power in the state for more than a year, Rajarhat remains a site of simmering tension. Rabindra Tirtha, a cultural centre in New Town, was one of Chief Minister Banerjee’s dream projects. However, those from whom the land was acquired (many allege forcibly), haven’t received any compensation for it.
Sukhen Mondal, who owned land in Rabindra Tirtha, was also a member of the Rajarhat Jami Bacchao Committee. Recently, he suffered a stroke. This, he said, resulted from the shock of the sudden loss of land in a prime location, without any compensation. “Over the last 10 years, I have been a part of Mamata Banerjee’s move to stop forcible land acquisition. I could not, even in my wildest dreams, imagine my land would be acquired like this,” said Mondal
In the process of developing Rajarhat as a township, close to 25,000 farmers lost their land, while about 1,00,000 landless farmers lost their jobs, said Nilotpal Dutta, secretary of the Rajarhat Jami Bacchao Committee, which is backed by the ruling Trinamool Congress. Dutta said construction activity had been carried out on only a fourth of the land acquired for the township.
Signs of protests are visible. “We have started farming on vacant arable land, where RLI (river lift irrigation) pumps are still working. We have been cheated by the present government,” said Dutta. At Chapna in the Patharghata village panchayat area, through the last ten years, residents have been keeping guard day in day out to stop forcible land acquisition.
Overnight, the locals have converted agricultural land to water bodies for fishing. Iman Ali, who has been spearheading the land rights movement in Patharghata, said this was aimed at stalling further expansion of Rajarhat.
Amid the stiff resistance to land acquisition, the development of the fourth phase of the Rajarhat township, or Action Area 4, has been called off, said Debashis Sen, chairman and managing director, West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation. He, however, denied a fourth of the land in Rajarhat was vacant. The entire Rajarhat township would be completed by 2017, he said.
About two decades after the plan was conceived, the enthusiasm surrounding Rajarhat has fizzled, with discordant real estate development and lack of infrastructure testifying the apathy towards the township. Consider the proposal to set up a financial hub, initially spread over a 25-acre plot in New Town: Recently, the agency responsible for the implementation of the project, West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation, had to re-launch competitive bidding for selling the land. This was because, in the first round, it had received only a one expression of interest. It hopes in the second round, things would be different. However, for thousands of farmers, either way, it’s a lost case.