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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

West Bengal: Simmering Embers of Rajarhat

Friday 31 December 2010, by D. Bandyopadhyay

The simmering embers of discontent of the evicted population of Rajarhat is now taking the shape of a bush fire. Dr B.C. Roy conceived of the Salt Lake town to provide space for the middle classes who were being squeezed out of Calcutta proper because of the sky-rocketing property prices. His idea of a satellite town at Kalyani did not succeed as it was a satellite to Calcutta. After long years of gestation it is now taking the shape of an independent town with a culture and character of its own. It is a bit distant from core Calcutta to imbibe the metropolitan touch. To a Calcuttan, it remains a “mofussil” town. Having understood this problem Dr Roy in his lifetime thought of extending the boundaries of Calcutta, by filling up marshes in the northeastern side of the city. It was on the filled up salt marshes that the Salt Lake town was constructed. With a hesitant beginning Salt Lake developed quite fast and by the mid-nineties it became evident that unless another planned town was not built, rapacious land grabbers in the name of private real estate development would start building ghettos after ghettos with some fancy names depriving the residents of the minimum civic facilities to maximise their profit. So by the mid-nineties the government decided to build another town adjacent to Salt Lake as New Town Kolkata. On the theoretical plane one cannot find fault with the concept of a new township as an extension of Salt Lake. So far so good.

There is another rather unsavoury factor. By the early nineties the CPI-M Government under Jyoti Basu’s Chief Ministership had completed one-and-a-half decade in power. They had nothing to show as their achievement except “Operation Barga (1978-81)”. Dr B.C. Roy was the second Chief Minister of West Bengal who was in power for 14 years (1948-62) and he was hailed by one and all as the builder of West Bengal in the post-independence era. And this he achieved in spite of the influx of over a crore of refugees from the then East Pakistan. Among his major accomplishments was the creation of the Salt Lake town—as a habitat for middle class Calcuttans. Jyoti Basu’s only performance in regard to Salt Lake was distribution of plots of lands in the Salt Lake town indiscriminately among his cronies, favourites and bigwigs to curry favour with them. People started comparing his non-performance with the achievements of Dr B.C. Roy. Jyoti Basu became very sensitive to such criticism. Hence to “immortalise” himself in the eyes of the voters of West Bengal, he started thinking about creating a new township at Rajarhat two-and-a-half times bigger than Salt Lake, so that his achievement in urban development could be measured as two-and-a-half times bigger than that of Dr Roy. Undoubtedly Jyoti Basu suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Dr B.C. Roy. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “inferiority complex” as a “feeling of general inadequacy caused by actual or supposed inferiority marked by aggressive behaviour or withdrawal”. Much of what happened in Rajarhat can be explained by this dismal psychological phenomenon from which the arrogant and vainglorious patriarch of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, suffered.

The total area of Salt Lake (including the IT township of Sector V) is 1200 hectares equivalent to 2964 acres. The township was built up by filling up tank fisheries which grew up from the old salt marshy land. There was no large habitation. The people displaced were mostly wage laboureres and fisherfolks working on these tank fisheries. The method adopted was unique. Dredged slurry from the river Hooghly was brought here by pipe to fill up the low-lying fisheries. It increased the navigability of the river and no prime soil was disturbed for the purpose of land fill. The time taken was also quite short to fill up these lowlands. To outdo Salt Lake, the area under Rajarhat township was proposed to be 3552 hectares of which 3087 hectares were notified under section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. In acre terms the figure was 7624.89, which is two-and-a-half times bigger than Salt Lake. While Salt Lake was largely uninhabited area, Rajarhat was densely populated. The land involved was good agricultural land producing two crops annually.

The government adopted a clever policy of coercion and persuasion, intidimation and cooption, blatant skulduggery and bribery. The Opposition was openly bought off for which the Trinamul Congress MLA was expelled from the party later on. By unscrupulous political “management” the authorities could smother the dissent of the displaced peasants during the time of the acquisition. That apart, there were ugly financial scams.

THE insiders in the CPI-M party knew the area to be acquired before the notification came under the LA Act. So a number of operators, one of whom was known in the locality as the “Gandhi Maharaj”, who was a close relation of a CPI-M politician, bought out lands from the peasants at Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 per cottah. (A cottah is 720 sq ft. or 67 sq. m.) And soon after the notification they handed over the land without a murmur to the government at Rs 10-12 thousand per cottah making a clear profit of Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000 per cottah. These operators obtained general power of attorney from the real peasants and syphoned off the compensation money to their own personal coffers. The anger of the peasants was stifled by sheer brute force of the party cadres and hired musclemen of the land robbers.

The authorities subsequently made money by selling the developed land to different parties at different prices. The prices of different plots could be different depending on locational advantage or otherwise. But each transaction was done separately with different price tags and every transaction presumably had a “hidden” transaction cost. The following examples would show the utter grossness of the transactions.

TABLE 1

- Name of Purchaser Total Area rice per cottah
1. National Co-operativeConsumer Federation 4.684 acres Rs 3.60 lakhs
2. Ordinance Factory Board 5 acres Rs 320 lakhs
3. Bharat Petroleum Ltd. 0.80 acres Rs 4 lakhs
4. Indian Space Research Organisation 1.5 acres Rs 3.50 lakhs

Source: Dainik Statesman dt. 12.12.2010

These are all public sector organisations that acquired land for their own use. Even so there was no parity in price. But the most glaring and gross manipulation took place in connection with the allotment of land to companies and private institutions for commercial use. The usual transparent practice everywhere is to put up different lots for public auction through open tender. The best price obtained would be the ruling price for that lot of land.

But the following Table will show how horrendous had been the price manipulation for which presumably there had been other conside-rations.

TABLE II

- Name of Purchaser Area Sold Price per cottah
1. Shapurji Palunji & Co. 150 acres Rs 1.2 lakh
2. Tata Sons Ltd. for apartment house 18 acres Rs 2.50 lakhs
3. Sanjay Chaudhury & Co. for housing purpose 1.25 acres Rs 2.50 lakhs
4. Bengal Ambuja for commercial complex 4.74 acres Rs 2.50 lakhs
5. Magus Bengal Estates, Singapore 13 acres Rs 3.6 lakhs
6. Sisir Bajoria & Associates 1 acre Rs 3.6 lakhs

Source: Dainik Statesman dt. 12.12.2010

While in alloting land toil the Central public sector undertakings or authorities for their own use the price ranged from the low of Rs 3.20 lakhs to the high of Rs 3.60 lakhs per cottah, for allotment to the private entities for commercial purpose the prices ranged between the low Rs 1.2 lakh to the high of Rs 3.6 lakhs per cottah. Why was such low price charged for commercial use by private commercial entities? It would not be unfair to presume some hidden transfer cost somewhere.

The Housing Minister very loudly proclaimed that many landowners handed over land willingly at the rate of Rs 10-12 thousand per cottah. The Minister unwittingly erred in not mentioning that after the notification under section 4 of the LA Act the land market gets frozen. The ruling price becomes the historic price—an average of the last three years price for similar kind of land in the vicinity. After the notification the question of willingness ore unwillingness would not arise. The gross difference between the acquisition price of Rs 10,000 per cottah and the average selling price of Rs 3 lakhs per cottah enraged the land losers and it has reached a boiling point. Singur and Nandigram gave these mute land losers courage and hope that they may get some justice if they could organise public demonstrations and launch agitations.

The population in the area is quite large. The number of evicted landowners is approximately 17,000. To this figure we have to add the number of bargadars (sharecroppers)—about 20 per cent of the figure, that is, 3400. There is a calculation by the ICAR that on an average four agricultural workers operate in a hectare of land. Thus the number of agricultural workers would be approximately 3087 x 4 = 12,348. Hence the total number of persons who lost their livelihood because of the Rajarhat land acquisition would be 17,000+3400+12,348=32,748. Their combined anger can explode anytime mortally wounding the ruling CPI-M.

The author, who has now retired from service, is a former Secretary, Revenue, and the erstwhile Secretary, Rural Development, Government of India. He was also the architect of ‘Operation Barga’ that left an indelible impress on the West Bengal countryside in the 1978-81 period when it was carried out under the leadership of the then Land and Land Revenue Minister, Benoy Chowdhury.