Sankrail, West Bengal: Even as the Union railway ministry prepares to take over at least 900 acres of troubled land in Singur in West Bengal’s Hooghly district to build a coach factory, farmers in Sankrail, some 50km away, from whom 700 acres of land was forcibly acquired in 1981, wait for the railways to honour its commitment to build a goods terminal there, employing at least one person from each of the 500 displaced families.
Sankrail in Howrah district is closer to Kolkata than Singur. The 700-acre plot is a few minutes walk from the National Highway 6, and there are at least two railway stations within 2km of Sankrail. There was no political resistance to the proposed project there, but the railway ministry seems to have forgotten Sankrail and the commitments it had made to the local people 28 years ago when the land was acquired.
New plan: The deserted Tata factory in Singur. Even as farmers in Sankrail village wait for the proposed goods terminal promised by Indian Railways, it is preparing to build a coach factory on the Singur plot. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Today the plot lies vacant. The railways has only built a small shed, which is used “once or twice a month” by private companies to park or for emptying wagons, according to locals.
Around 50km away in Singur, where Tata Motors Ltd had almost finished building its small-car factory, the railway ministry wants to set up a coach manufacturing facility despite legal complexities arising from railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s stance on forcible land acquisition in Singur.
The Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s main opposition party, which protested the land acquisition and forced Tata Motors to move its small-car factory from Singur a little over a year ago—maintains that 400 acres of land must be returned to farmers who did not agree to sell land.
Returning land wouldn’t be easy and could lead to legal wrangling between the state and the erstwhile owners of the acquired plot, according to state government officials.
“What is more, the state hasn’t yet terminated the lease agreements with Tata Motors or any of its component suppliers,” said a state government official, who did not want to be identified. “So the coach factory in Singur, if at all it materializes, is years away.”
Banerjee was extremely vocal in Parliament and outside it about the still-born Sankrail project when Laloo Prasad was the railway minister, recall locals, but now Sankrail doesn’t feature in the long list of things that she has promised to do in and for her home state, alleges Ajoy Bar, a member of Sankrail gram panchayat, or village council.
“In fact, recently she was to visit Sankrail and address the people here on her way to Shalimar railway yard, only 12km away, but she changed her plan in the 11th hour and didn’t turn up at all,” he added.
In 1981, the local people sold their land for the goods terminal project for as little as Rs4,000 a bigha, which is one-third of an acre; the current price is around Rs40 lakh a bigha. “Yet, we gave our land because the railways had promised to offer job to at least one person in each affected family,” said Ganesh Chandra Bar, who sold close to two acres of land.
Bar, 70, now works as a security guard at the small railway shed at Sankrail when it has a wagon parked inside, earning Rs60 a day. “The shed isn’t used more than a couple of times a month, whereas what the railways had promised was one of the biggest goods terminals in the country,” he added.
Spokespersons for the railways, both in Delhi and Kolkata, refused to comment on the Sankrail project.
Let down by Banerjee, the residents of Sankrail have formed a forum to pressure the railways to immediately start construction of the proposed terminal. The forum, which isn’t affiliated to any political party, has been petitioning key government officials seeking intervention, and has even written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Ambika Banerjee, local Trinamool Congress leader and member of Parliament from Howrah, said he had discussed the Sankrail goods terminal with the railway minister. “We are trying to figure out what could be done… Our minister is abreast of the situation. However, I wouldn’t be able to comment on why nothing has been done for so many years.”