Kolkata: The West Bengal government is planning to distribute for free at least 200,000 acres of state-owned land among underprivileged people in a bid to regain the political support it lost after the forcible acquisition of land for industrial projects.
The takeover of some 10,000 acres of farmland had resulted in the Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, losing votes in the 2008 village council polls and the 2009 general election, reversing the result of the 2006 assembly polls.
Gaining favour: A file photo of the Nano unit in Singur that Tata Motors had to abandon. After forcibly acquiring land for various projects, the state government plans to distribute 200,000 acres of land for free. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The state government is now trying to make amends by distributing land, both in cities and in rural areas, before the assembly elections scheduled for next year.
The proposed largesse will benefit at least one million families, according to the state’s land and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah. “It is an attempt to regain the confidence of people who have left us,” said Mollah, whose department is coordinating with others for implementing various schemes under which land will be distributed.
The schemes would mostly benefit people who have built homes on state-owned land and those tilling the soil for absentee landlords.
While announcing the first scheme on 18 February, West Bengal’s finance minister Asim Dasgupta had said the state would lease out land for free for 99 years to the “urban poor”, or people who have been occupying state-owned land for more than 20 years and earn less than Rs6,000 a month.
Under the scheme, land under 25 municipal bodies is to be distributed, benefiting some 400,000 people.
Another scheme was announced later to benefit agricultural workers, artisans, fishermen and other financially challenged people.
Not only is the lease premium being waived for them, the state government is even going to offer a discount on the annual lease rent, according to Mollah.
The state government typically charges 0.3% of the value of land as annual lease rent.
“Even this could be huge, particularly for land in the urban areas,” he said.
Apart from this, the state government is planning to transfer perpetual tilling rights of some 170,000 acres of farmland to people who currently cultivate them.
“In West Bengal, there are vast tracts of land owned by absentee landlords,” Mollah said. “The state government would seize them under the Land Reforms Act, and distribute them among people who till them.”
Though people would not have the right to sell tracts of land thus secured, they would have a perpetual right to cultivate them for a living.
The state government has through the decades brought under its control large tracts of land under its celebrated land reforms programme, but hasn’t distributed everything that it seized from large landowners, said Abhirup Sarkar, political observer and professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute.
“A lot of land was kept aside by the (state) government for being distributed among supporters of the CPM,” he said. “This largesse is an attempt by the CPM to shore up support for itself at a time when it faces the biggest political challenge in this state.”
Besides the crucial assembly polls in the state next year, elections to 81 civic bodies are going to be held towards the end of this month.
Some programmes have been announced for so-called high-income group (HIG) families as well.
For instance, some 20,000 HIG families living in Kolkata’s Salt Lake township have been given a one-time opportunity to add floors to their homes, the state’s urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya said.
That apart, many homes that have been illegally built on land reserved for agriculture and wetlands are going to get “regularized” by the land and land reforms department over the next one year.
“However, the state government has decided that such relief will be granted only to people who have built homes for themselves, and not to large residential complexes built with a profit motive,” said an official of the land reforms department, who did not want to be named.
This could have favourable legal implications even for large residential complexes, many of which were to be demolished under various laws, added the government official.