A resolute Didi? Stern warnings over Bengal syndicate raj, but not much action
With the aim of ending the syndicate raj menace that afflicts West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on 19 August sternly warned all members of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to not indulge in such activities.
In fact, she went far enough to point a finger at South Dum Dum Chairman Panchu Roy openly, saying that she had received reports that Roy along with two other councillors are involved in the syndicate business and had extorted Rs 30-40 lakh.
A double game?
But the fact that she brought up Roy's name so publicaly begs the question: why have the police not taken any action against them so far?
The Chief Minister's Office (CMO) told Catch that they did not want to comment on the matter, adding that more arrests should follow now that Mamata is taking action.
During the meeting with party councillors, Mamata said, "If I receive further reports of extortion from my partymen, I will clip your wings."
Since the rot is so deep and since the state's law and order have been unable to address the issue, she then set up a municipal party under the TMC with Mayor Sovan Chatterjee and Firhad Hakim as the convenors. It should be noted that both their names had featured in the Narada sting operation that had found that both had allegedly taken bribes.
Rather than making illegal money via extortion, she instructed her partymen to win the trust of the people. "You (pointing at the councilors) decide where you will stay."
Without naming any other councilors involved in the racket, Mamata said, "I have information that many councilors are trying to tarnish the image of the party by making liaison with contractors. Councilors have to decide whether they want to stay for two years in the party, gain illegal money through extortion or continue in the party for a long time by fully devoting themselves toward the development of the people. If they stay in party, then they had to look for the party's interest as a whole and it is only development work that will fetch them to gain the confidence of the masses."
Mamata also said that municipalities that do good work towards ending the systematic rot would be awarded.
Ahead of the municipal elections in 2017, the syndicate raj problem may well become one of the bigger election issues. That's party because many in the state feel that the general atmosphere of lawlessness has flourished under Mamata's guidance.
As a result, Mamata is cracking the whip by making sure each party member knows that those who tarnish the name of the party will be dealt with severely.
With TMC failing to hold power on 67 municipalities in the state out of 179 municipalities, the party supremo has sent out a clear message to her partymen that they need to gain the confidence of the people so that they can win more municipalities.
The opposition, however, said that Mamata heads the syndicate raj herself, claiming that's the reason why she hasn't taken any action against party leaders and MPs accused of indulging in corruption.
Congress leader Abdul Mannan pointed out how the multi-crore-rupee Saradha chit fund scam had landed a TMC minister in jail. Referring to the purported sting operation by the Narada News portal, Mannan said: "Their MPs have been seen... They have been caught on camera. But Mamata has taken no action. That's because she is the head of the syndicate. How can she then take action against her corrupt ministers and members of parliament?" he asks.
Making the change happen
At the meeting oddly, Mamata pointedly said that TMC members have learned the syndicate business from Bidhanngar Muncipality. Interestingly, the mayor of the municipality - Sabyasachi Dutta - was not present at the meeting.
A month ago, TMC leader Anindya Chatterjee was arrested for trying to extort money from Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's relative in Kolkata. Chatterjee, a sitting councilor of ward 41 of the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation was questioned overnight after being arrested by the Bidhannagar City Police.
Mamata used him as an example at the meeting, warning everyone that more such arrests will be made soon.
But it's a long road ahead. He all-pervading syndicate raj is so institutionalised that even the judiciary has not been able to avoid its fell hand.
Justice Dipankar Dutta of the Kolkata High Court in February has said that the situation will get completely out of control if the state administration did not immediately intervene. "The situation is so alarming that members of syndicates are not even sparing the courts. Kolkata High Court faced similar problems while constructing court buildings at Salt Lake and Asansol," Dutta added.
The measures taken so far:
1. Mamata has decided to clip the power of the councilors and declared that from now onwards for re-construction of buildings, residents do not need to get permission from the councilor.
2. From now on, councilors will have no say in where residents set up their drainage and water supply line - which was previously constructed on the basis of councilors recommendation.
3. For getting trade licenses, residents will no longer have to seek permission from the councilor and can directly approach to the corporation of municipalities to get their trade license.