Like all dyed-in-the-wool democratic Indians, I was shocked and horrified at the arrest of a Jadavpur University professor and the secretary of the housing society where he lives. What was revealing, however, was that it wasn’t the long arm of the law (if the police can ever be so described!) that hit them first. It was the mob. The mob beat up the two men and then got the uniformed goons-for-hire to continue their dirty work.
The sequence tells me that no matter how dictatorial didi might be, she didn’t send her minions flying to do her ugly will with Henry II’s murmured “Will no one free me of this turbulent priest?” In fact, unfashionable as it has suddenly become to defend her, I must say I think it’s most unlikely she had even heard of the obscure victims, Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, before the mob took them on. But politics being politics, she wouldn’t dream of disowning even disreputable contractors and local toughs if they flaunt Trinamool’s colours.
It’s clear these people were sending a message to the 65 members of the New Garia Housing Society who will elect nine directors on May 20. Sengupta is the cooperative’s secretary; given didi’s virulent anti-communism, a self-avowed Leftist like Mahapatra is an easy target. His internet jokes, sent from the not-computer-savvy Sengupta’s office computer, came in handy for the purpose.
But the heart of the matter is land, the second of didi’s evocative triple commitment — Ma, Mati, Manush, Mother, Land, People. A leaflet distributed by an organisation with suspected Trinamool links says of the estate, “This sprawling, leafy housing is decorated with treasures besides houses that can be a cause for the envy of other complexes. It has an art gallery, library, temple, pond, health centre, cultural centre, administrative building and market complex, treasures that few complexes in Bengal can boast of.” It also has several vacant plots.
It was for mati that blood flowed in Nandigram and Ratan Tata was driven from Singur. The Communst Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), gave as much mati as they wanted to favoured financial backers to convert into lucrative housing projects. It also allowed a park in the best part of Kolkata to become a dump and then tried to hand it over to a promoter for a car park.
Such stratagems are not confined to West Bengal. The poor frequently provide an excuse for the rich to get richer. It’s not unknown for state land, or land acquired for a worthy public purpose, to be handed to real estate developers whose commercial and residential buildings are sold in the open market, naturally with official connivance. Karnataka folk complain of a lake being filled in and government buildings torn down after officials with underworld links illegally transferred the land to a developer.
It’s no secret either that black money is sunk heavily in grossly undervalued real estate. I can think of Delhi shopping malls with occupancy of around 10 per cent. The investors aren’t worried because they are waiting for property prices to spiral even higher. A solution lies in ccomputerising land records as in Bangalore, but land mafias and their bureaucratic and political patrons strongly resist this in other cities.
Scams are not confined to Mumbai’s Adarsh Housing Society. Many West Bengal housing cooperatives, even small ones, are dens of intrigue, corruption and mismanagement. Many are run by a pernicious combine of promoters, policemen and politicians. Government administrators provide only temporary relief. Sooner or later, the old committee members who sanction inflated repair bills for a cut are back in power.
Promoters rightly have a bad name, but they are also at the mercy of criminal gangs who impose a levy on every construction. A promoter tells me the CPI(M) was preferable because it operated through recognised gangs subject to party discipline. “Now, a different group turns up every day demanding money and claiming to represent Trinamool!” It’s the chief minister’s weakness she can’t control freelancers operating in her name. Nor will she repudiate them.
The New Garia Housing Society sprawls over 45 acres, which is huge for Kolkata. It’s valued at Rs 100 crore. Three cottahs there (a cottah, Bengal’s commonest unit of land measurement, is 720 sq ft) cost Rs 16,000 in 1976. The present price is Rs 30 lakh.
A fortune is up for grabs. The sharks are circling it. In saving the society, Banerjee will also save her own reputation and perhaps revive hope in her promise of paribarton, change.