Kolkata: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee may soon announce a new land use policy which says the government will not acquire land for industrial projects, leaving it to project promoters to do so.
“They (companies) operate in a market economy, so must deal with market forces. They shouldn’t ask the (state) government to acquire land for them,” said Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, a former official of the state’s land and land reforms department, who led a two-member panel to draft the proposed policy.
Bandyopadhyay submitted the draft policy to Banerjee on Wednesday.
Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party last month won state assembly elections, unseating a 34-year-old rule by the Left Front.
The TMC had joined local protests in the state against land acquisition at Nandigram, where a chemical hub was proposed, and at Singur, where Tata Motors Ltd planned to put up its small-car factory.
“The decision not to help companies acquire land in any manner is a setback,” said the managing director of a steel maker looking to set up a large plant in West Bengal, who requested anonymity. “The problem with West Bengal is (that) there are too many owners and it is beyond the means of any company to deal with them directly.”
The first casualty of the new land use policy could be power utility NTPC Ltd’s proposed plant in Burdwan district.
Chief minister Banerjee said in the state’s legislative assembly on Monday that there was no question of forcibly acquiring land for the project though the firm has made some progress in securing land.
The government will also not allow farmlands where more than one crop is cultivated in a year to be put to industrial use.
Such tracts of land would be identified in each district and reserved for agriculture, Bandyopadhyay said.
However, the state government would continue to acquire land to build infrastructure, but while doing so, it should treat “land not only as a property, but also as a source of livelihood”, Bandyopadhyay said.
Faced with controversy, the state’s previous Left Front administration, too, had encouraged a large number of companies to acquire land on their own, but hardly any managed to do so.
The Left Front government used to typically ask companies to buy at least 70% of the land on their own; if they could do so, the state government acquired the balance 30%. The experiment failed.
Some companies such as Bhushan Steel Ltd and Tata Metaliks Ltd had “horrible experiences”, according to an official of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC), which till now acted as a facilitator for industrial projects and acquired land for them. He refused to be named.
“Bhushan Steel and Tata Metaliks began buying land, but couldn’t secure a contiguous plot,” he said, adding that Bhushan Steel was cheated by “unscrupulous brokers”, and had to abandon its project. “It wasn’t a big tract of land that it was looking to buy—only about 120 acres.”
Because of the high population density and fragmented landholding in West Bengal, it is difficult for companies to acquire land on their own, according to the WBIDC official.
For instance, in Singur, where the state government acquired land in 2006 for Tata Motors’ Nano car factory, WBIDC had to deal with at least 13,000 owners to secure 997 acres.
“It is impossible for companies to directly deal with the owners and they have to go through brokers to buy land,” said the WBIDC official. “The question is whether the state government or private individuals would act as the intermediary. We have seen brokers take companies for a ride.”
Going by the experience of companies buying land on their own in West Bengal, the proposed policy could mean curtains for big-ticket investments in the state.
Tata Metaliks’ managing director, Harsh Jha, was recently quoted in news reports as saying that it is possible for companies to buy land on their own only if their requirement is small. But for projects that require large tracts of land, government intervention is essential.
Other key recommendations in the new proposed policy include a five-year programme to provide land to 550,000 homeless people to build homes and a complete ban on use of genetically modified (GM) seeds in the state.
According to Bandyopadhyay, the West Bengal government could take over five years to acquire and distribute 10 cents, or 4,356 square feet of land, to each of the 550,000 homeless people in the state at a cost of Rs1,500 crore.
This programme should be dovetailed with the Centre’s housing schemes such as Indira Awaas Yojana, he added.
He also said the state government should ban the use of GM seeds in the interest of “food security” because such seeds damage long-term productivity of agricultural land.