Bengal govt plans cash payments for some landowners

Bengal govt plans cash payments for some landowners

Singur (West Bengal): Over and above return of land, the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government is likely to pay cash to a section of erstwhile landowners at Singur to compensate them for loss of livelihood for four-five years.

Only people who protested the 2006 land acquisition to build a Tata Motors Ltd car factory by not accepting payment for land seized from them will receive the compensation. They are the ones to whom the state government proposes under the newly promulgated Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act to return as much land as they were forced to part with.

The Act names some 2,800 erstwhile owners as entitled to receive land and, hence, also this cash compensation.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is expected to announce this largesse in a few days. The decision to pay cash to compensate for loss of livelihood is likely to be ratified in Monday’s state cabinet meeting.

The compensation is likely to be determined considering the average annual income from tracts of land in Singur that yield more than one crop a year. This, according to Dipankar Ghosh, an elected representative in the village council of this neighbourhood, is around Rs30,000 a bigha, or one-third of an acre.

Going by his estimate and the state government’s records that show erstwhile owners who did not receive payment collectively owned around 300 acres, the yet-to-be-announced cash compensation would cost the state exchequer around Rs11 crore.

“This is not just a humanitarian step," said Rabindranath Bhattacharya, minister of primary education and Trinamool Congress legislator from Singur. He is also a member of the committee that will decide the modalities of returning land to erstwhile owners. “Compensation for loss of livelihood is a legal right for farmers," he added.

The state government would decide the compensation based on specific applications made by erstwhile land owners, giving an estimate of their notional loss of livelihood from the land seized from them, said Bhattacharya.

A state government official, however, said the decision to pay cash compensation was taken in view of the legal difficulties in returning land to erstwhile owners.

“It could take time to resolve all the legal challenges to the government’s plan of returning land," he said, speaking on condition that he would not be identified. “This is, as it were, an interim relief."

Tata Motors, to which land was allotted in Singur to build its Nano car factory, has challenged the Singur Act in the Calcutta high court. Its lawyers said on Friday the process of returning land to erstwhile owners should be halted for the time being.

Tata Motors announced its decision to abandon its Singur factory in October 2008 in the wake of violent protests spearheaded by the Trinamool Congress, then the state’s principal opposition party. The Trinamool came to power last month after defeating the 34-year-old Left Front government in assembly polls.

A large section of the 11,000 erstwhile landowners, who received payment from the state government, are also going to challenge the Act, claiming “unequal treatment" and “unfair distinction" among people affected by the abandoned small-car project, said Udayan Ghosh, a leader of this section. They haven’t yet moved court though.

For people such as Paritosh De of Purbapara Beraberi village, a farmer who lost an acre of land five years ago, the cash compensation could mean a new lease of life. “This is too good to be true," De said, when told the state government could compensate people like him for loss of livelihood as well. After land was acquired from him, De tried to make a living hawking wares on the streets of Kolkata, but lost a foot in a road accident. Bound to home, he has since been struggling to make ends meet—yet he didn’t accept payment from the state treasury. De’s family was among some 80 families that had mortgaged their right to compensation to borrow money from a Trinamool Congress-backed forum for the marriage of his daughter. The cash compensation would help him return the money he had borrowed and reclaim the land the state government is to return under the Act, he said.