Kolkata: Railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s largesse for West Bengal has given her home state’s Left Front government an opportunity to score political points ahead of next year’s assembly elections.
The state government is acquiring land on a war footing for railway projects announced by Banjerjee after her Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s main opposition party—joined the Union government last year and she became railway minister. This puts pressure on Banerjee to deliver on her promises and exposes her to the risk of public backlash over land acquisition—the plank on which she staged a career-rejuvenating campaign against the Left Front two years ago.
Banerjee has proposed to set up a power plant, coach and wagon manufacturing facilities and processed water bottling plants, besides expanding railway connectivity in the state.
Though land acquisition for several industrial projects has been stalled, the government has begun the legal process of issuing notifications for acquiring around 3,000 acres of land for the railways, according to the state’s land and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah. “Our commitment to the railways’ projects shows our party (Communist Party of India-Marxist, or CPM, which heads the government) doesn’t play politics with development,” Mollah said.
At least 2,569 acres are being acquired in Bardhaman district, a CPM stronghold, and the district administration has already started facing resistance from locals, according to additional district magistrate Abhijit Mukherjee.
People aren’t happy with the compensation that the railways has offered—Rs2.82 lakh an acre. They want Rs6 lakh, Mukherjee said, adding that people also want jobs in return for their land. “We have written to the railways twice informing them about the ground situation, but they haven’t replied yet.”
A railway spokesperson said the demand for jobs was being considered, but no decision had been taken.
“We are aware that people (in Bardhaman) have started forming groups to protest land acquisition for the railways’ projects,” said Amal Haldar, a key CPM leader in Bardhaman. “We appreciate that their demand for better compensation is a reasonable one, yet we are encouraging people to consider the merits of the projects.”
But Trinamool leaders are concerned that “a trap is being laid” to tarnish Banerjee’s pro-farmer image.
“They are trying to derail the projects,” said Swapan Debnath, president of the Trinamool Congress’ Bardhaman district unit. “(But) we aren’t giving up on our effort to educate people about the benefits of these projects.”