Mamata looks to acquire land for railway projects

Mamata looks to acquire land for railway projects

Kolkata: Although opposing farmland acquisition in West Bengal has paid rich political dividends for Mamata Banerjee, the railway minister now wants to acquire large tracts of land in rural areas for a slew of projects.

Since Banerjee joined the United Progressive Alliance at the Centre a year ago, she has proposed to set up factories in her home state to manufacture railway coaches, wagons and locomotives, besides expansion and extension of several railway tracks.

To prove that land could be acquired with consent if right compensation is paid, she has told the state government that the railways would pay a substantially higher price.

In a letter sent recently to the state’s chief secretary Ardhendu Sen, the railways has said that compensation for land needed by it would be determined under the Railways Act and not on the basis of the standard formula under the British-era Land Acquisition Act, a state government official said.

This implies that the railways could pay up to 60% of the market price of land as additional compensation for voluntarily surrendering land, compared with the West Bengal government’s 30%.

The entire cost of acquisition would be borne by the railways, a spokesperson said.

“She is trying to make a point that she isn’t opposed to land acquisition, and that she only insists on the right price being paid," said an official of the land and land reforms department in Kolkata, requesting anonymity. “Political benefits are going to be tremendous if this works."

Banerjee’s often hostile resistance to land acquisition began in 2006 when the state government acquired 997 acres in Singur, near Kolkata, for Tata Motors Ltd’s now abandoned small car factory.

Her movement against farmland acquisition for industrial projects gained momentum when the state government’s attempt in 2007 to acquire land in Nandigram for a special economic zone met with tremendous resistance from local people.

Though Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party was routed in the assembly elections in West Bengal in 2006, it staged a comeback in the 2008 village council elections, and has since been on a winning spree, trouncing the Left Front in key elections every year. Assembly elections in the state are due next year.

Learning from its mistakes in Singur and Nandigram, the state government has lately been trying to build consensus on compensation ahead of acquiring land, the state’s land and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah said.

As a result, at many places the price of land has risen several times since the state government announced plans for acquisition.

“Yet, we are having to abandon some acquisition plans because of resistance from local people," Mollah said.

Banerjee’s latest offer is going to make land acquisition in West Bengal very expensive, according to the state government official cited earlier.

The state government builds consensus on the market price of land, which goes up during negotiations because the administration is trying to avoid conflicts, he said.

“If on top of that, we had to pay 60% solatium (additional compensation), acquisitions would become so expensive that many companies may not want to set up shop in West Bengal."