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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

Letter From Kolkata: Dissecting Vedic Village Scandal

Sunday 25 October 2009, by Amitava Mukherjee


Some of the corporate houses of the country have now reasons to feel despondent. Contrary to public perception, even after Singur and Nandigram they had not lost faith in the West Bengal Government’s ability to acquire agricultural lands of poor farmers for setting up projects which are likely to fatten the money bags of those industrial barons and their middlemen. Recently this came out into the open after a sordid drama was unmasked in what is now being called in West Bengal the Vedic Village scandal.

The present-day Bengali mind has lost whatever it had till the end of the 1970s. Or it should have built up a mass movement against Jyoti Basu’s policy of playing havoc with plots of lands in Salt Lake which were basically public properties. What Bidhan Chandra Roy had thought of as the abode of middle and lower middle class people became an area of ‘quota’ politics where Basu arrogated rights to dole out plots of lands in the name of Chief Minister’s quota, an anachronistic thing in any democratic structure. But trampling of democratic values is the wont of the Communists. Not much protest was raised. On the contrary client intellectuals that included litterateurs, journalists, actors, singers etc. staged a caricature when they stood up in queues to get the favour. The government’s policy of filling up the begging bowl was extended in other areas also where housing blocks had come up. It might be interesting to note that some prominent figures who have propelled themselves as the conscience of Bengal and who move around the principal Opposition party in Calcutta are themselves beneficiaries of this policy of the Left Front Government.

Rightly or wrongly, land remains close at the heart of the followers of Marx in West Bengal. Theirs may be a saga of failure in every sphere, but credit must be due to them on at least one count—for making land the most expensive marketable product of the State. The story of Salt Lake, where plots are allocated on a lease hold basis, is close at hand. It is not just showering of selective patronage but doing practically nothing while lands are transferred illegally and unethically to a class of people who have nothing to speak about themselves except money. They are traditionally known for unethical business practices and have greately polluted the once serene and middle class character of Salt Lake.

Rajarhat, where the infamous Vedic Village is situated, stands very close to Salt Lake. This is an extremely fertile agricultural belt and is interspersed with aquatic ‘bheris’ which produce large quantities of fishes. During the early part of Bidhan Chandra Roy’s government this area was mainly looked after by Hem Chandra Naskar, a very popular Minister, who used to get elected from Bhangar, an adjoining Assembly constituency. Hem Chandra Naskar and his family owned quite a large number of ‘bheris’ and therefore the Communists, in those days, described them as ‘class enemies’. But Hembabu, as he is still fondly and reverentially remembered by the seniors of Bhangar and Rajarhat, had no hired goon, never took away anybody’s land not to speak of threatening anybody at gunpoint for parting with his plot. In fact it is a matter of great doubt whether Hembabu had ever seen or come across any firearm in his life. He was a devout Gandhian.

But the followers of Marx are not as simple as Hembabu or his Chief Minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy. They have read,clinically dissected and learnt a lot from the Permanent Settlement of Lord Cornwallis, the British Governor-General who first made land a marketable commodity at the fag end of the 18th century. After all, so runs the general idea that the Communists are the best read among all moving in different political spectra of the country. Theirs is not only a political philosophy but a multi-faceted discipline which can now boast of falling apart everywhere. The philosophy has produced so many fire spewing economists in India. It is therefore natural that the Leftists of West Bengal would know the value of land best.

The verdict of the last Lok Sabha election has decidedly proved that the people of the State do not want any sunrise industry at the cost of traditional sectors like agriculture. The pathetic failure of the Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-sponsored propaganda that the exit of the Tata’s Nano project from West Bengal would deal a death blow to the futuire of the State proves this point. But the people of West Bengal were completely kept in the dark, thanks to the willy nilly cooperation of the Trinamul Congress, to a very big and macabre design that was being executed in the Rajarhat belt in the name of a resort project called the Vedic Village which had started more than a decade ago. The modus operandi was very simple. Some businessmen first purchased certain plots of land from local farmers. The quantum of such purchase was not big. Then they hired some local criminals led by one Gaffar Mollah. The next stage of the project saw forcible occupation of poor farmers’ lands by Gaffar at gunpoint, manufacturing of fake land sale deeds etc. By such devious means the Vedic Village authorities acquired a very large area. Side by side they developed political contacts cutting across all the political parties. Some Ministers and bureaucrats started visiting the village, one of them being Abdur Rezzak Mollah, the State’s Land and Land Revenue Minister. Rezzak Mollah has, however, clarified his point. He used to go there for Ayurvedic treatment of his respiratory system. “I am a super clean man,” Mollah has thundered.

Whatever may be his claim, neither Mollah nor the government he belongs to has been able to put the case cleanly before the people. Mollah’s department had, at a stage, declared as ‘khas’ (vested) certain areas which the Vedic authorities had acquired illegally. These areas then became government properties and the Vedic Village turned out to be a violator of law. But what did the West Bengal Government do? It handed back the same portion of land to the Vedic Village on lease. Certainly even the wrongdoings of Mayawati look like just peanuts in front of the record of the West Bengal Government.

THE Chief Minister of the State is again back on the scene with his childish ignorance. He did not know what was happening in the Vedic Village area, he admits. All kinds of crime were committed there, he admits again. But is there really any Government in the State as the Chief Minister himself admits that he does not keep himself posted with information of criminal activities which continued for years? Similarly why didn’t the Trinamul Congress, the redoubtable opposition party, raise any hue and cry? It must have been in the know of all the murky goings-on through its local representatives.

There lies another question. Vedic village is only a part of the huge amount of land acquired from poor villagers in the Rajarhat area with the majority portion having been taken for a township called the New Town. The man at the helm of acquisition spree for New Town was the State Housing Minister, Gautam Deb. In Rajarhat land acquisition from poor farmers for building up-market housing projects for wealthy people has been taking place under Gautam Deb’s stewardship for a long time. Here also the action plan is very simple. By a notification the State Government prohibits private sale and purchase of lands in any area which is targeted for acquisition. Then, through local political network, pressure is brought upon hapless agriculturists to agree to acquistion by the government for which the farmer gets much below than the market rate. Many big housing projects in Kolkata have come up this way. This was the method applied in Rajarhat New Town too.

Marxists are up against Mayawati for flouting norms and decency in public life, a thing they are comitting in West Bengal for a long time. Its worst example is the Vedic Village where the State Government joined hands with the mafia for depriving the poor people. WEBEL, a State Government undertaking, formed a joint venture named Akash Nirman with the Vedic Village people. Its two notorious arms were Biplab Biswas, the project manager, and Gaffar Mollah. Poor farmers were cheated, thrashed and their lands forcibly taken away.

So it does not sound credible when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Gautam Deb say that they did not know what was happening in the Rajarhat area. Local people mention the name of a person who bears the surname Gandhi. In the mid-1990s, when the Rajarhat township idea was just in the pipeline, this man was seen operating briskly in the area as a speculator. Later developments proved that he had deep connections in the corridors of power and was very close to a former MP’s

But what was Mamata Banerjee doing when all these things were going on. She has expelled Tanmay Mandal, a former Trinamul MLA of Rajarhat, along with two other local party functionaries on the charge of ‘maintaining unethical links’ in regard to the Rajarhat township. But her action has taken place when nearly all the chapters of the township construction, right from acquisition to construction of buildings and infrastructures, are complete. Why had she to wait till the Gaffar Mollah episode for initiating action? Secondly, quite a few of her party MLAs were made members of different committees involved with the township project? Why didn’t they raise any objection previously while Mamata is complaining presently that there are many dark sides behind the Rajarhat township chapter? Local people as well as media reports strongly allege the involvement of the brother of Arabul Islam, the Trinamul MLA of Bhangar, in the murky dealings of the Vedic Village authorities

But the greatest casualty of the Vedic Village scandal is no doubt the CPM. By his own admission the CPM Chief Minister of West Bengal stands unfit to occupy any administrative post. The scandal has also torn asunder the CPM as a party. Althouh the CPM State Committee has censured Abdur Rezzak Mollah for his open criticism of the West Bengal Government, the challenge from Mollah and a significant section of the party remains.

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