Champadanga, Hooghly: The West Bengal government will soon start acquiring about 500 acres of farmland some 20km from Singur, where violent protests a year ago by farmers and the Trinamool Congress—the state’s main opposition party—against land acquisition forced Tata Motors Ltd to abandon its small car project and move it to Sanand in Gujarat.
There may not be any resistance this time because the land is going to be acquired for the railway ministry, headed by Mamata Banerjee,?the Trinamool Congress chief.
Click here to view a slide show of land acquisition scandals in the recent past
The Left Front government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, won’t oppose the move as it senses a political opportunity ahead of the 2011 assembly election.
The rail ministry has written to the state government asking it to acquire land under the controversial Land Acquisition Act for a railway track between Bargachhia in Howrah district and Champadanga in Hooghly district, 20km from Singur, according to Balbir Ram, principal secretary of the state’s land and land reforms department.
A privately owned narrow gauge railway track connecting the interiors of the Hooghly district was abandoned more than 35 years ago. The new broad gauge track will be laid to improve accessibility, explained an official of the land and land reforms department, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The state government already owns some 150 acres in that area, the official said. “At least 500 acres more will have to be acquired,” he added. “Also, the state will have to reclaim from squatters most of the 150 acres it owns.”
New project: The narrow gauge line, abandoned 35 years ago, terminated here. The land will be acquired under the Land Acquisition Act. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The notification for the proposed acquisition is going to be issued soon, with the price to be paid derived by using the formula laid down in the Act. Under this formula, the state government offers the average of prices at which land in the neighbourhood has been sold over the past one year. Because people understate the price to save on stamp duty, which is levied on transfer of ownership, the price derived under the formula does not normally reflect the true market rate.
Land in Champadanga and its neighbourhood typically yields two-three crops a year, and according to locals, annual income from one bigha, or one-third of an acre, is Rs15,000-20,000. The current market price, say farmers, is Rs9-15 lakh an acre depending on productivity and proximity to the nearest highway.
West Bengal has seen violent protests in the past two years over land acquisition. Besides Singur, a proposed hub of chemical industries at Nandigram in East Midnapore district was also relocated due to opposition by local residents.
The Trinamool Congress supported both the agitations and benefited in the recently held national elections, winning 17 parliamentary seats compared with just one in 2004. In the 42 constituencies in the state, CPM and its allies won 16, down from 35 in 2004.
“Who is going to form a resistance group now?” asks Ashok Jana, a farmer who fears the state government may seize his two bighas.
Samar Lohar fears losing his home because it’s close to the abandoned railway track.
“The CPM is not going to lead us, nor would the Trinamool Congress, which means we are going to lose everything,” he said.
Trinamool Congress legislator Partha Chattopadhyay, leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, sought to draw a distinction between this case and that of Tata Motors.
“This and land grabbing for a private party are not the same things,” he said. “We are not opposed to development. In this case, land is going to be acquired for a national cause.”
Suhrid Datta, a prominent CPM leader from Singur, who a year ago bitterly opposed the Trinamool Congress and the farmers in their campaign against the Tata Motors project, doesn’t seem perturbed.
“We aren’t Mamata Banerjee,” he said, when asked if his party was going to oppose the proposed land acquisition at Champadanga and its neighbourhood.
However, CPM leaders from Champadanga are more vocal than others from the rest of district. “They (Trinamool Congress) stopped Tata Motors from building its factory in Singur because it was fertile land, and now their chief wants equally fertile land for the Railways,” said Asit Patra, chairman of the local government body of Champadanga.
But leaders such as Patra are going to toe the line that the CPM has decided at the highest level. “Let the people see for themselves. We are not going to oppose development,” said Robin Deb, a CPM state secretariat member. “But we will make sure that the compensation package reaches everyone, even sharecroppers and landless labourers.”