An increasingly volatile land dispute in the Bhangar area of West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district threatens to turn into the first major stumbling block for the Mamata Banerjee government in its second term, barely two days before it is set to woo industry captains at the Bengal Global Business Summit starting Friday.

On Tuesday, tensions flared in Bhangar – where villagers are protesting against a power transmission project – and the police fired at protestors, critically injuring one villager. Some media outlets reported two deaths in the firing. The trouble began late on Monday night after the Criminal Investigation Department of the police picked up a villager, Kalu Sheikh, who was involved in the campaign against the power project. He was released soon after questioning, but the action led to an outpouring of anger in several villages in the area. Violence broke out after police teams raided houses in several of these villages early on Tuesday morning and allegedly manhandled women.

The residents retaliated by pelting the police with stones and setting fire to a police bus, along with wooden logs, tyres and rubber tubes. This prompted the police to lob teargas shells at the villagers.

To many, the images of violence carried by television channels and the nature of the outburst brought back memories of the Singur and Nandigram land movements in the state. The Singur agitation in 2006 had forced Tata Motors to abandon its plans of setting up a manufacturing unit for its Nano car while in Nandigram, violent resistance to the then Left Front government’s plan to acquire land for a special economic zone had resulted in the death of 14 people in 2007. These events ultimately led to the defeat of the Left, after more than 30 years in power in the state, at the hands of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in 2011.

While the violence in Bhangar casts a definite shadow on the business meet this weekend, its impact may go beyond the event as it threatens to upset a major power infrastructure project worth over Rs 1,000 crores, that too one that is nearly 90% complete.

The project

The Power Grid Corporation of India Limited started to build a sub-station on about 13 acres of land in Bhangar in 2013. It has claimed that about 250 farmer families willingly gave up their land and received monetary compensation, which cost the company Rs 19 crores. The local administration, panchayat functionaries and the concerned farmer families were all part of the negotiation process, said a company official on condition of anonymity.

On completiton, the Bhangar sub-station would receive power from the Sagardighi thermal power plant in Murshidabad district and the Farakka unit in Malda. This power would then be channeled to the northeastern states, apart from feeding the Rajarhat and New Town areas of Kolkata, stabilising the currently erratic electricity supply to these areas. One leg of the transmission line from Bhangar is also expected to connect Purnea in Bihar.

Sudden resistance

The first signs of trouble surfaced on November 3 when villagers organised a demonstration, claiming that the compensation amount was not adequate, the power transmission towers of the sub-station were encroaching on fertile farmland, and that the project was hurting the sensitive ecology of the area. Six villagers, including three women, were arrested, and some of them reportedly jailed for 18 days.

The next outburst came on January 10, when some 50,000 villagers blocked a road and demanded that work on the project be stopped immediately. They agreed to lift the blockade only after the district administration, Trinamool Congress representatives and the police agreed to stall work as an interim measure and hold discussions with the villagers.

The residents alleged that during negotiations with the government and the power major before the start of the project, details of the transmission towers had not been discussed. “Villagers were told that a mere power sub-station would come up that would improve the power supply network of the area, to which the villagers did not have any objection,” said Alik Chakrabarty, a spokesperson for the Land, Livelihood, Ecology and Environment Protection Committee, which is spearheading the agitation. “But the real magnitude of the project was gradually exposed and an overwhelming number of villagers now find it unsuitable and inconvenient for locals.”

Chakrabarty is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), a Naxal faction. He claimed the project had already affected the critical eco-system of the area, which comprises human habitation, green patches and wetlands. “We have come to the support of the villagers who are demanding total scrapping of the project,” he added.

“People had reservations about compensation amounts and also, there was coercion in some cases of acquisition,” Chakrabarty alleged. “All these issues need to be to be reviewed and an environment impact study done on the high transmission lines and if these would have any electro-magnetic adverse impact on the local population and agricultural activity.”

In the meantime, the villagers are considering moving court if the administration does not heed to their demand.

Politics behind it?

A top official with the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, however, alleged that the problem seems to be political in nature. “Various faction of the ruling Trinamool Congress are creating disturbance and allegedly trying to incite the local population to stall the project at the last moment,” he claimed. The official, who did not want to be identified, added that the government was fully aware of the developments and “hopefully, it would be sorted out”.

On Tuesday, the chief minister sent senior Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy and the party’s Bhangar MLA Rezzak Mollah – who was land reforms minister during the Left Front regime and switched over to the ruling party last year – to the area to assess the situation and speak to the agitating villagers.

State Power Minister Sovandev Chatopadhyay said the government had already asked the corporation to stop work till negotiations were held with villagers but despite this, matters had flared up. “It looks like some outsiders have a stake and are trying to instigate the agitation,” he alleged. “And I am fully confident that all the apprehensions of the villagers will be addressed.”