Land acquisition: Mamata gets dose of her own medicine

By Anurag Dey, IANS,

Kolkata: Only a few years ago Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had used her intense protests against forcible land acquisition to revive her electoral fortunes in West Bengal. But now the railway minister seems to be getting a taste of her own medicine with political rivals in a tit-for-tat strategy agitating against her on the land acquisition issue and forcing her to scrap or hold back some of her dream projects.

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The foundation-laying ceremony for a diesel multiple unit (DMU) coach factory, proposed to be set up at Sankrail in Howrah district, had to be cancelled early in January following intense anti-land acquisition protests.

Banerjee has announced that the factory would be set up elsewhere in the state, though she is yet to settle for an alternative location.

The village farmers, allegedly backed by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), launched the protests demanding increased compensation for their land and written assurances of jobs in the railways.

In a quirk of fate, Banerjee was forced to formally announce cancellation of the project Jan 13 – the day she held a public meeting at Hooghly district’s Singur, the cradle of her anti-land acquisition protests in 2006-2008.

Two years of sustained peasant agitation led by Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress had forced auto giants Tata Motors out of Singur on a similar protest that caught global attention.

The party then demanded the land be returned to Singur farmers from whom it was allegedly acquired forcibly by the state government for Tata Motors’ Nano car project. The auto maker had to abandon its semi-finished plant and shift the world’s cheapest car project to Sanand in far-off Gujarat.

The Singur agitation caused a turnaround in Trinamool’s electoral performances after its decimation in the 2006. The party did well in the 2008 panchayat polls and crushed the Left Front in the 2009 Lok Sabha and subsequent civic elections.

The construction of the northeastern head office of the Railway Recruitment Board in Siliguri has also run into rough weather following protests by the CPI-M’s students wing, Students Federation of India (SFI).

The SFI has claimed that the project is being constructed on a heritage ground. State Urban Development and Town Planning Minister Ashok Bhattacharya has already shot off a letter to Banerjee urging her not to construct the building on humanitarian grounds.

Trinamool Congress’ Lok Sabha member Subhendu Adhikari pulled up the state government as also the CPI-M for the agitations.

“The state needs industries. The railway minister is establishing them but the state government is stalling them by provoking people to protest. The government here is for the party, by the party and of the party,” said Adhikari.

The railways’ freight corridor from Dankuni in Hooghly district has also gone off-track following allegations that wetlands are being filled up for the project.

The freight corridor, basically a 1,806 km railway track from Dankuni to Ludhiana in Punjab, will allow goods trains to run at a speed up to 100 kmph.

More ironical are the protests launched by a section of farmers against land acquisition by the railways in East Midnapore district’s Nandigram, the site of a fierce peasant agitation spearheaded by Banerjee against a chemical hub in 2007.

The state government was forced to scrap the project. As a result, Banerjee’s budget announcement of linking Nandigram with Deshpran has now landed in troubled waters.

Similar to what Banerjee did to the Left Front, farmers in Howrah, Hooghly and Birbhum districts have formed “Bhumi Uchched (anti- acquisition) Committees” for protesting against the acquisition of land for railway projects and to demand higher compensation.

Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, however, said: “People have realised that industrial growth is the key to the state’s development and so no party can stop or stall industrial growth in the state”.

Although Banerjee’s crusade against forcible land acquisition established her as a dominant political force, she was branded “anti-industry” by her political rivals.

It was with a view to changing her image and strengthening her chances in the upcoming assembly elections in the state that the railway minister had showered a slew of projects on West Bengal.

But with the wheel seemingly turning a full circle, she now finds herself on the wrong end of the anti-land acquisition protests.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at [email protected])