Words have never been a problem for Chief Minister Mayawati and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee. Both of them are great at politicsâ€”emotive, speaking from the heart. No one knows better than them that land acquisition is the new Shibboleth for the country's vote bankâ€” the least complicated and most personal of them. The latest point of conflict between those wealthy business houses and the poor farmers is too juicy to resist political expediency-led statements.
Banerjee's home ground in West Bengal has provided her plenty of platforms to air views on why there would be no forcible land acquisition for any railway project, even if the project does not come off. That's the rhetoric that has rippled across the country's opinion leader-led rural landscape and for the first time, may thwart rail projects in some parts of the country.
And it showedâ€”at least two railway projects, a diesel multiple unit locomotive factory in Sankrail and a stadium in Bongaon, both in West Bengal, have faced vociferous opposition over land acquisition. And this is a good thing: if Banerjee has ignored the strong possibility that her rhetoric will come around to haunt her, surely she is no longer that naÃ¯ve. Her solution to the protests in Sankrail? The plant will come up elsewhere in the state.
Even with Banerjee's likely win in the Bengal elections, the public sentiment may take some time to die down.
On the other hand, Banerjee has been announcing innumerable new railway projectsâ€”some without any plan by the Planning Commission or any budgetary allocationâ€”and unfortunately, has been the cause of an artificial divide between the land-owners and development of the nation's rail network. Her stand to make the government have â€œabsolutely no role in land acquisitionâ€ may boomerang, especially in her own department, where private participation is minuscule and will take a few years for any substantial role for the private sector. At the ground level, land acquisition needs the authority that only a government can provide, as a private party will remain alien to the local population and local economies.
The biggest and most impactful fallout of Banerjee's opposition to mandatory land acquisition will be in the much-awaited Dedicated Freight Corridor, which is more than likely to get on the long list of gravely delayed projectsâ€”even as the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India (DFCCIL), the new SPV under the railway ministry, is inviting financial bids over the next few months for the phase I of both corridors. Already, farmers are up in arms as local politicians claim that wetlands are being acquired in Dankuni, near Kolkata, for construction of the Eastern Corridor. But the word out there is about the murky possibility that Banerjee's politics have held up the acquisition process on both corridors, even though the Corporation claims to have acquired much of the required land. In four years, the Corporation acquired only about 10 per cent of the targeted land for the Corridor.
The stakeholders of rail logistics and dependent industries will breathe easier if Banerjee devotes herself to state politics more so that the Dedicated Freight Corridorâ€”like many other railway projectsâ€”can progress in a more systematic and inclusive manner, including both industrial and social development.