Kolkata: A skirmish that left one person dead and a substantial part of Vedic Village—a 125-acre resort-cum-condominium complex, 30km from Kolkata—burnt has exposed a case of alleged land seizure by a real estate developer and could scupper a 1,200- acre information technology (IT) township that was to be built in the vicinity.
In partnership with West Bengal’s IT department, Vedic Realty Ltd, which built Vedic Village, was developing the IT township.
Under an innovative deal, Vedic Realty was to buy 1,200 acres from farmers, transfer half the plot to the state’s IT department for free, and keep the other half for developing housing and commercial complexes. In return for 600 acres, the state government was to create civic infrastructure for the township and build a 7km road to connect it to Kolkata. The township was to be built around Vedic Village.
The state government in April last year promised to allot 90 acres each to Infosys Technologies Ltd and Wipro Ltd at the proposed IT township.
Under a cloud: Sunday’s violence, which was triggered by a dispute over a football match, has brought to light the ongoing tussle between local farmers and Vedic Realty over land acquisition that started many years ago. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Sunday’s violence, triggered by a row over a football match between two local teams, has exposed an ongoing tussle between farmers and Vedic Realty over land acquisition. Locals said that thugs were intimidating farmers and forcing them to sell land.
One alleged thug, who uses the name Gaffar, allegedly hurled crude bombs and shot dead a teenager who had come to watch the football match. He fled the ground and took shelter in Vedic Village, chased by a mob of some 700 people who vandalized the resort but couldn’t find him. Gaffar is on the run, according to the North 24 Parganas district administration. Ten people were arrested on Sunday in connection with the arson. On Monday, at least eight more were arrested. The police also covered firearms and explosives from Vedic Village.
“He (Gaffar) has been intimidating us,” said Ajit Roy, a local farmer. “I had 10 cottahs of land, which yielded three crops a year… He offered Rs2 lakh a cottah, but I refused to sell my land. He seized the land and built a road through it.” One cottah is one-sixtieth of an acre. Many others complained that Vedic Realty was grabbing land.
Vedic Realty’s managing director Raj Modi said Gaffar was a vendor who supplied construction materials to Vedic Village. He denied his firm was forcibly acquiring land. Asked about the recovery of firearms and explosives from inside Vedic Village, Modi said they were found from the shanties used by workers, and were likely left behind by the mob that attacked on Sunday.
When asked about the arson at Vedic Village, West Bengal’s home secretary Ardhendu Sen said the state government was of the view that “land was being forcibly acquired for expansion of Vedic Village.”
Vedic Realty started buying land in that area more than six years ago. “Initially, they offered Rs50,000-60,000 per cottah, but eventually raised the price to Rs2 lakh per cottah,” said Bablu Naskar, a local Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, leader. “The tension intensified because people wouldn’t yet sell land.” At least 60 families have been opposing the land seizure. They had moved court to stall construction.
Asked if Sunday’s violence and what it revealed could derail the IT township project, principal secretary of the state’s IT department Siddharth said, “As far as we are concerned, we are going to go ahead with the project.”
Vedic Realty’s land acquisition in that area has been under the state government’s scanner for many years. As early as in 2003, the state’s land and land reforms department found that 20-odd firms “operating out of the same address” acquired some 70 acres, violating the land ceiling act. The state government seized 44 acres, following which Vedic Realty moved court, according to Abdur Rezzak Mollah, West Bengal’s land and land reforms minister. However, persuaded by the state’s tourism department, the government agreed to an out-of-court settlement in 2004, under which the land was leased back for 99 years to three firms of the Vedic Realty group on payment of Rs97 lakh.
“I was told that the company (Vedic Realty) would promote tourism and help in the economic development of that area, so agreed to the tourism department’s request for an out-of-court settlement,” added Mollah.
Two months ago, the project was declared a township by the state’s urban development department, freeing Vedic Realty of all restrictions under the land ceiling act. “There was no problem with its application, so my department cleared it,” said Asok Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s minister for urban development.
Aveek Datta contributed to this story.