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Singur redux: farmer agitation in Kolkata's Rajarhat may bite Mamata

Sulagna Sengupta | Updated on: 27 September 2016, 12:43 IST

It's ironic that one of Mamata Banerjee's biggest political victories has now come back to bite her.

Banerjee was the one who led the movement against the forceful land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram by the Left Front regime, which helped bring her to power in 2011.

But now, farmers of Rajarhat-New Town, a satellite township on the eastern side of Kolkata, are giving her a taste of her own medicine. They've begun organising demonstrations demanding a return of, or compensation for, land acquired by the Left Front government in 2001-02.

On Monday, the police detained Sheikh Nizamuddin, a leader of the Save the Land Movement of Rajarhat-New Town. This is the first time a farmer leader has been detained under the Trinamool Congress government.

The situation in Rajarhat-New Town is still tense, and policemen and the Rapid Action Force have been deployed in the area to keep a check on things.

History of the township

During the late 1980s, the Left Front government, under Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, took stock of the burgeoning population of Kolkata. It also took into account the saturation of the satellite town of Salt Lake, and decided to set up another satellite town at EM Bypass, at what was then called the Rajarhat Gopalpur panchayat area.

Then, during the early 1990s, erstwhile housing minister Goutam Deb began the process of acquiring thousands of acres of farmland for building the township and developing an IT hub. Many government offices as well as regional headquarters of multinational companies were to shift to the area.

The entire party machinery of the CPI(M) was put into action, with cadres using many different tactics to get the land from the farmers. In some areas, party cadres unleashed a reign of terror to get prime land at low prices. Later, in 2007-08, when the Banerjee-led anti-Singur movement was at its peak, the Left Front government under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee decided to revise the rate of compensation to farmers.

Around that time, IT giants Wipro and Infosys were given 50 acres of land each by the government, and both applied for Special Economic Zone status for their projects. However, once Banerjee became CM, she refused to give them the status, and the projects never got off the ground.

Inspiration for the movement

On Monday, Sheikh Nizamuddin was arrested from Atghora village, where he was sitting with his followers. Later, around 500 farmers demonstrated in front of New Town police station, as well as the HIDCO (West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation) Bhavan, demanding his release.

Police and RAF posted outside HIDCO Bhavan in New Town. (Photo: Sulagna Sengupta/Catch News)
A vehicle damaged by protesters outside HIDCO Bhavan, New Town. (Photo: Sulagna Sengupta/Catch News)

Nizam, in fact, started the agitation after the Supreme Court verdict on Singur came out at the end of August.

At the time, Banerjee declared that the land at Singur would be made cultivable again and returned to the farmers - the shed of the Tata Motors factory that was to come up there had already been torn down by the state PWD.

Taking cue from that, Nizam and the farmers of Rajarhat that the government return land where no projects had come up, or give adequate compensation for land where projects had come up.

A letter written by farmers to HIDCO chief Debashis Sen. (Photo: Sulagna Sengupta/Catch News)

The farmers who gathered at the HIDCO headquarters brought application forms addressed to the chairman of the body, Debashis Sen. But HIDCO officials denied that any such forms were given to them. Sen himself said: "I have nothing to say. The matter will be looked at by CM Mamata Banerjee."

Willing to escalate the movement

Prashanta Mondal, a resident of Jotbhim village, had to sell off around 18 kottah of land (around 0.29 acres) between 2001-03 at Rs 6,000 per kottah told Catch: "During that time, we had to part with the land because of tremendous pressure from the Left Front government .The current market rate of the land is around Rs 10-15 lakh per kottah. We were deprived of our compensation.... at that time, the government should have given us at least Rs 2 lakh per kottah."

Sheikh Rashid Ali, resident of Hatiahara Paschimpara, who sold nine kottah of land, said: "Our demands are clear. The Singur verdict has emboldened us, and now we know our Didi will not ditch us, so we have deciced to launch this movement."

While the farmers have still not been assured as to whether they'll get adequate compensation from the government, they have decided to launch a massive agitation if their demands are not met.

Sons of farmers leave after being questioned at New Town Police Station. (Photo: Sulagna Sengupta/Catch News)

Luckily for them, Banerjee has shown signs of flexibility on the issue of land acquisition. On the day of the Singur verdict, farmers in Burdwan sat on a protest demanding their land back from the area where a 'mishti' (sweets) hub was to be set up. The government identified a piece of land and the project was shifted there, with Banerjee claiming that they government wouldn't acquire any land forcefully. Ironically, the new location for the 'mishti hub' is in New Town.

Political games begin

Top sources in the Rajarhat-New Town administration said the issue was expected to take a political turn. This is because there's a long-standing feud between TMC leaders like MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Bidhannagar mayor Sabyasachi Dutta, and that Opposition parties like the Congress and the CPI(M) would jump into the feud in order to capitalise on the situation and put Banerjee under pressure.

Robin Mondal, a former CPI(M) MLA from Rajarhat-New Town, said the state government should look into the matter carefully, so that the 'interest of the farmers' does not take a beating.

On the other hand, a senior Trinamool minister told Catch: "We have already intimated the CM in this regard, and we will decide on the future course of action after speaking to her."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 27 September 2016, 12:43 IST
 
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