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Land acquisition ball in Mamata's court

August 17, 2009 08:22 IST

The West Bengal government is acquiring land in the Hooghly district under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for the Indian Railways. The site isn't far from Singur, the battleground between the Tata group and Trinamool Congress' Mamata Banerjee, who is now the railway minister, when the state government invoked the same Act to acquire land for the Nano small car plant.

The Railways has already identified 28.71 acres to be acquired to construct the Tarakeshwar-Bishnupur broad gauge line.

Once the Land Acquisition Act is invoked, people do not have much choice but to give up their land in most cases. A window of 30 days is open to object to the acquisition, which the state government may or may not consider.

As Debanjan Mandal of leading law firm Fox & Mandal, pointed out, "If the state goes ahead with the acquisition in spite of objections by the land-loser concerned, then that amounts to forcible acquisition to that extent."

The irony of this is it was Banerjee who protested vehemently when the Land Acquisition Act was invoked in Singur, though more than 80 per cent of the people had voluntarily given up their land for the Nano project.

Her indefinite dharna last year demanding that the state government return land to unwilling land-losers, finally provoked Tata Motors to pull out of Singur and relocate to Sanand in Gujarat.

Trinamool Congress is the Congress' largest ally in the United Progressive Alliance with 19 seats. Its successful showing in West Bengal in the 2009 general elections - handing the Left Front its worst defeat in three decades - was driven mainly by championing the rights of unwilling land-losers in Singur and, earlier, in Nandigram where a chemical hub was planned.

Now, when asked about the land acquisition for the Railways, Trinamool Congress leaders were vague in their response. Partha Chatterjee, the leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly, said, "Land can be acquired for railway and road expansion projects. This is our party's stand. I do not know about these notifications, so I should not comment."

What makes the Railways' move surprising is that Banerjee recently forced the UPA government to take the Land Acquisition Bill off the agenda just ahead of its presentation in the Lok Sabha. She wanted at least four changes.

One, landowners should have a legal right to buy back their land if the proposed project doesn't take off within the stipulated time. Two, the government should not play a role in acquiring land to set up private projects. Three, no industry should come up on agricultural land. Four, land cannot be acquired forcibly against farmers' wishes.

The Railways acquisition in West Bengal could go against at least the last two of Banerjee's objections.

"The Railways is acquiring around 100 acres across Bankura, Bardhaman and Hooghly districts by invoking the Land Acquisition Act. In Hooghly, the land is double-crop and multi-crop," said Basudeb Acharia, former chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on railways and sitting MP from Bankura.

During the Rail Budget discussion in the Lok Sabha, Acharia pointed that at least 30,000 acres would be required for the East-West freight corridor from Ludhiana to Kolkata, involving acquisition of agricultural land.

Banerjee's response was cryptic: "We are not going to acquire land forcibly. A Railway line does not require a huge amount of land in one particular area. Only a small stretch of land is needed to build railway lines. It will not be like your Nandigram or Singur." Railway Board officials were not available for comment.

Naturally, the CPI-M, the largest party in the four-party Left Front coalition that rules West Bengal, isn't willing to forgo a political opportunity. As Abdur Rezzak Mollah, state minister for land and land reforms, observed, "The Trinamool Congress opposed land acquisition so vehemently. Now, the Railway ministry headed by its party leader needs land. It will be interesting to see how they face the people."

Mollah, however, added, "We will cooperate with the Railways on this matter. But when fertile land is taken, the state government will convert the same amount of one-crop land into double-crop land."

He also said the state would not use force to acquire land. The roles have been truly reversed.

Goutam Ghosh & Ishita Ayan Dutt in Kolkata
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