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ROADBLOCK

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LEFT HANGING: At least 35 major infrastructure projects have hit a roadblock

The West Bengal landscape is dotted with mega projects that have ground to a halt because the state government is unwilling to negotiate land acquisitions.

Bengal today is dotted with some very strange sights. Flyovers that don't descend, rail tracks that go underground but don't emerge, six-lane highways that seem to have lost their way into narrow dirt tracks and power ineffective transmission towers that stand desolately in the midst of paddy fields.

All these are incomplete mega projects that, when work on them commenced, promised to change the face of Bengal. But over the past two years, ever since the Trinamool came to power in this state, they started floundering one after the other. The reason: the state government's extreme reluctance to acquire land for these projects and even remove squatters on the government land that is required for these projects.

The latest to hit the acquisition roadblock is the 111. 4 km-long fast corridor between Dankuni and Kharagpur which involves the widening of National Highway 6, part of the country's Golden Quadrilateral project. Work on this Rs 2, 200-crore project started in April last year, but ground to a halt last week because the state government has not handed over some tracts to the contractor, Ashoka Buildcon Ltd.

"If land is not handed over to us, we cannot work, " said Ashoka Buildcon Ltd general manager (projects) Mohit Kumar Kar. The state government had, earlier, assured complete support to the NHAI and its contractor for executing the project. NHAI sources said that the state government is unwilling to remove squatters - hundreds of houses and makeshift shops - on it own lands and hand them over for the NH 6 expansion.

The expansion of the two-lane NH 34, an arterial highway that links Kolkata to North Bengal, was abandoned last year after the state government refused to help the NHAI acquire land for the expansion. The TMC government's failure to acquire land and remove encroachments along National Highway 31 that passes through the strategic 'chicken's neck' corridor in north Bengal and is the lifeline for Northeast India has hobbled its expansion. Work on expansion of National Highways 60, 32, 35 and 41 has also stalled for the same reason. "West Bengal is the only state where we have faced this problem. As a result, the six-lane or four-lane highways here suddenly become two-lane on stretches, " said a top NHAI officer.

By the state government's own admission, at least 35 major infrastructure projects - expansion of highways, construction of flyovers and bridges, laying of new rail lines and erection of power transmission towers - have hit the land acquisition roadblock in Bengal. Another showpiece project that has got stalled over a land related issue is the construction of Kolkata's longest flyover, the 8. 14 km one between Park Circus and Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. HCC, which won the bid for construction of the flyover, submitted a cost escalation bill to the state government earlier this year. But with the state government sitting over the bill, HCC has stopped work on the project.

All the ambitious metro rail extensions in and around Kolkata too have been got derailed. The 13. 77 kilometre-long East-West Metro that would have connected Salt Lake to Howrah, with tracks going under the Hooghly - a first for the country - hangs in a limbo. "This project cannot be completed due to the unavailability of land in two stretches. The state government is not resolving land-related complications, " said Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC) managing director Hemant Kumar Sharma.

Till the Trinamool Congress held the railways portfolio and was part of UPA 2, work had progressed smoothly. "The state government is indulging in petty politics that will harm the state, " says Adhir Choudhury, the junior railway minister. He adds that the Rs 4, 875 crore project would surely miss the August 2015 deadline.

Work on five more Metro Rail extension projects were mooted by Mamata Banerjee herself when she was the railway minister for Kolkata and its neighbouring areas have stopped completely. Construction major Larsen & Toubro, which had bagged the bid for constructing a portion of the 20-km Metro Rail from the Kolkata airport to Barasat (in Kolkata's northern fringe) pulled out of the project earlier this month citing failure by the authorities to remove 1, 184 hutments and shops on railway land.

Metro Rail sources say that this part of the Rs 2, 397-crore project would, in all probability, have to be scrapped. Work on the other four lines is also progressing very slowly since land has not been acquired by the state government and handed over to Metro Rail. "The future of all the five extension projects is uncertain, " says a Metro Rail official.
The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has been unable to go ahead with setting up of its proposed 1, 600 megawatt power plant at Katwa in Burdwan due to the Trinamool government's reluctance to acquire land at the project site. The earlier Left front government had acquired 575 acres of the 1, 100 acres required for the plant, but Trinamool government has refused to even help the NTPC acquire the rest.

On its part, the state government says that it is bound by Mamata Banerjee's promise to the people of the state not to acquire land forcibly. "If people are willing to sell their lands for any infrastructure project or industry, we have no problem. While we will not acquire land at all for private industry, we will acquire land only for infrastructure projects from those willing to sell their lands and be rehabilitated. But if people are unwilling, we cannot force them. It is up to the agencies like the NHAI or KMRC to convince the landowners. At best, we can act as a facilitator, " says state industries minister Partha Chatterjee.

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