Untold Story of Land Grab in Basu’s Bengal

(CPI(M) continues to tell whoever will listen, that in West Bengal, acquisition of fertile land is only for industrial development and employment generation; and also that at Singur, it has ensured a model programme of compensation and rehabilitation. The fate of the victims of an even older land grab project - at the Rajarhat New Township (RNT) in the North 24 Parganas district way back in 1995 – gives the lie to these claims. Nityananda Ghosh reports, using extracts from a booklet issued by the North 24 Parganas district committee of CPI(ML) Liberation, titled ‘Rajarhat: Uponagarir antorale arto manusher kanna’ (Rajarhat: Cries of agonized humans beneath the township), based on the accounts of senior CPI(M) cadres and local leaders who left the party in protest over the anti-poor model of development.)

The RNT was a pet project of the erstwhile West Bengal Chief Minister, veteran CPI(M) Politburo member Jyoti Basu and Housing Minister Gautam Deb, a West Bengal State Committee member of the party. Urban development at the New Town has spelt cruel eviction of landless and marginal farmers from their livelihood and homes. As in Singur, the LF government made use of Land Acquisition Act 1894, a British colonial act which the CPI(M) quietly used for years; all talk of ‘amending’ it has come about only due to the fierce struggle of the people of Singur.

A survey, conducted by the CPI(ML) Liberation on the plight of oustees unearths the untold story of RNT that calls the bluff of CPI(M)’s claims of pro-poor development, and shows that neo-liberal urbanisation inflicts the same devastation, no matter whether it is right-wing Governments or CPI(M)’s Government at the helm.

RNT is situated in the far eastern fringe of Kolkata, surrounded by the Nowai Canal (previously Labanya Prabha River), Bagjola Canal and Kestopur-Bhangar Canal which were the spillways of Kolkata. The township greatly hampers the natural flushing of flood water from areas, inundated by rain. More importantly, the oustees used to grow three to four crops a year where the RNT was constructed and the spillage (including urban wastes) were used in cultivating those crops. Several hundred bargadars (sharecroppers), agricultural labourers, small and even middle peasants were turned oustees in the interests of realtors who call the shots at the CPI(M)’s power-centres – the Neotias, the Todis, the Khaitans, Bajorias, etc.

The beginning of forced impoverishment began with a notification for acquisition by the department of land and land revenue, Government of West Bengal in 1995 – No 2787 LA (2) 4 H 11/94 housing and ICA 3424 2(9) – for acquisition of all farming and wetlands in 21 mouzas. Among the grabbed mouzas were JL no 21 of Tarulia, JL No 2 of Gopalpur, JL no 3 of Solua, JL No 15 of Chandiberia, JL No 14 of Hatiara, JL No 9 of Tegharia, JL no 18 of Mahisbathan, JL no 19 of Thakdanri, JL no 20 of Mahis Gate and others comprising 7000 hectares under sub-section 12(2) of the 1894 Act. They were mostly wetland fisheries of bheries. The actual land-grab began in 1999.

About 250,000 households were evicted to make way for this hi-fi township. Among them were over 30,000 households that owned lands and 5000 registered bargadars, according to records of L & LR department. But unregistered bargadars were about twice the number of registered ones.

In this grand land grab operation, the main beneficiary was one Kamal Gandhi, a real estate tycoon and a close relative of former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member Sarla Maheswari. The land transaction began in 1984-85 when relatives and friends (some might be benami too) of Gandhi-Maheswari bought those lands at prices between Rs 30,000-Rs 40,000 per bigha (one bigha=1/3rd acre) when the prevailing price was between Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000. Thus Kamal Gandhi became a neo-landowner of a huge area. Not that he is an efficient land-speculator but “being close to the CPI(M) and the government under its hegemony, Kamal Gandhi had access to the blue print of RNT and records. Only after getting those documents, he started purchasing those lands. Land transaction this way went on for several years and in this he got help from the CPI(M) at all levels, from state leadership to the concerned district, zonal and local committees, local panchayats and even goons under CPI(M) shelter and the police”.

After the land acquisition beginning in April-May 1999, notices were sent to the land-owning peasants and bargadars and everyone refused to accept the notice. The rate of compensation, fixed was between Rs 5000-Rs 6000 per cottah at a time when market rate, fixed by the government was Rs 50,000- Rs 60,000. The reluctance to sell those lands, one of the most fertile ones in the country was natural. The CPI(M) leaders engaged police and administration as also notorious anti-social elements. “Hired goons forced unwilling residents of Thakdanri and Mahis Gate to sell their holdings under intimidation. There were some killings too during the period.”

Notorious goons of Congress era of the 1970s, like Ruidas Mandal aka Ruhis aka Luisnow served the CPI(M), leading bands of hooligans to intimidate peasants and fish-farmers to give up their lands. Luis was even nominated as a CPI(M)-supported candidate for a gram panchayat seat but he was “defeated by two votes. Trampling panchayat election rules, he was found to have won the seat by one vote”. The resistance, put up by the Rajarhat Krishi Raksha Committee (RKRC), could not withstand the combine of money, goons, CPI(M) party machinery and administration. Initial success in resistance was overcome by the active role of CPI(M) MLA of Rajarhat Rabin Mandal and Gautam Deb. Among the collaborators in the land deals was former Trinamool Congress MLA of Rajarhat (SC) constituency, Tanmay Mandal. “Fire-brand’ Mamata Banerjee back then, had no interest in meeting the RKRC leaders despite their many attempts to do so. 

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