Kolkata: In a sign that West Bengal is not giving up on its industrial programme despite this being seen as one reason for the ruling Left Front’s poor performance in the recent rural polls, land acquisition in the state is set to restart within a few days.
Surprisingly, the two districts where the government has decided to acquire land immediately — North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas — are the ones in which the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, suffered defeats because of controversies over land acquisition for industrial projects of Indonesia’s Salim group.
Going slow: West Bengal industries minister Nirupam Sen. Photograph: HT
The state’s land reforms minister Abdul Rezzak Mollah has approved plans to acquire land in 10 mouzas, or rural wards, in North 24 Parganas, and the section 4 notification under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 — the first legal notice to owners — could be issued within a few days, according to a bureaucrat at the land reforms department of the West Bengal government.
Golam Ansari, additional district magistrate of North 24 Parganas, who is also the land acquisition officer, confirmed having received instructions from Writers’ Buildings, the seat of the state government, but declined to give more details.
However, the state’s commerce and industries minister Nirupam Sen said in Delhi on Thursday that his government had decided to “go slow” on the Salim group’s projects until a consensus could be built at the “grass roots level” on land acquisition for these.
An official at Writers’ Buildings said on condition of anonymity that land acquisition plans in North 24 Parganas have been drawn up but kept under wraps because the government has been warned by the district intelligence branch — a wing of the state police — of stiff resistance to such activities.
The government is looking to acquire around 700 acres in North 24 Parganas for a 100km highway — the Barasat-Raichak Expressway — which will be built by the Salim group. It also needs a little over 450 acres in adjoining South 24 Parganas district for the same road, and notices to owners have been issued recently only for acquiring as little as 30 acres in three mouzas.
Although the government earlier planned to acquire as much as 3,000 acres in the two districts for the proposed four-lane highway, it has now decided to make do with as little as 1,200 acres.
“The government is testing the pulse of the people,” said Baidyanath Mondal, the land acquisition officer of South 24 Parganas. “The idea is to go slow on an experimental basis.”
In these two districts neighbouring Kolkata, the CPM suffered a massive setback in the rural elections, losing polls to the zilla parishad — the highest decision-making body in a district — in South 24 Parganas for the first time, and the majority of gram panchayats, or village councils, in North 24 Parganas. Though the CPM retained control of the North 24 Parganas zilla parishad, it won by as few as three seats.
Two days after the rural poll results were announced last week, West Bengal’s commerce minister Sen had said: “There is no question of rolling back industrialization because that is a must for West Bengal at the present moment.”
There is no way the government could go back on its promise to provide land to companies looking to invest in West Bengal, but there are indications that it is treading cautiously even in districts such as Purulia, Burdwan and Bankura, where a large number of steel companies are looking to build factories, and where there’s been little or no resistance to land acquisition so far.
Though the state cabinet had cleared plans to acquire up to 3,800 acres in Purulia district for a 5-million-tonne steel plant, and a 3-million-tonne cement production facility to be built by the Jai Balaji group, the administration has so far issued notifications for acquisition of only 953 acres.
Land acquisition in the same district for Damodar Valley Corp.’s 1,200MW power plant is also being done in phases; earlier, the government had acquired 997 acres in Singur in one lot and in record time for Tata Motors Ltd.
In Nandigram, too, where the Salim group was to build a chemicals hub, the government had planned to acquire over 12,000 acres in one lot. The project, however, was aborted because of stiff resistance from villagers.
The slowdown in land acquisition following the Left Front’s rural poll debacle could mean delays in several projects in the state. The government has been encouraging companies to buy directly from landowners, but some firms such as Tata Metaliks Ltd have not been able to complete the land acquisition process on their own. “This illustrates why the government can’t wash its hands of,” said Sabyasachi Sen, principal secretary at the state’s commerce and industries department.