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West Bengal farmers allege Rs 100 crore fraud in NHAI compensation
Alipurduar, Oct 28 (IANS/ 101Reporters) A motorcade travels on a dusty road flanked by lush paddy fields towards Chengpara village in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal. Officials of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), local police officers and district administration officials disembark from the vehicle. They scope the area and depart as abruptly as they came.
The villager, Sabita Roy (50), claimed that the officials often intimidate them through such visits ? as was witnessed by 101Reporters. They want Chengpara's farmers to accept the compensation given by NHAI for their land that was purchased to construct a highway.
Chengpara, a village dominated by the ethnic Rajbanshi community, is among the five mouzas or Panchayats involved in a legal wrangle with NHAI over land acquisition for the highway. The four other mouzas include Salsalabari, Bhelukdabari, Chaparerpara and Sovaganj.
The NHAI has acquired 170 hectares of land for the extension of a 41 km four-lane highway between Falakata and Salsalabari in the Alipurduar district. It is a part of the east-west corridor of the Golden Quadrilateral connecting Surat in Gujarat to Silchar in Assam. It passes through West Bengal's rice, jute, and potato fields.
The highways authority started acquiring land for the Rs 1,030-crore project in January 2019. However, the farmers have obtained a stay order on the work from the Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court. They claimed they have not received the whole compensation promised by the NHAI.
NHAI has claimed to have disbursed Rs 154 crore ? Rs 1.20 crore for every 0.1 acre ? for 22.14 acres of land. But farmers claim to have received only 54 crores. Rs 100 crores are unaccounted for.
Compensation does not tally
About 500 farmers who have given up their land said that the compensation received from NHAI does not tally with a list published by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in a Bengali daily in November 2020.
"The land acquisition process by NHAI has been faulty since the beginning," said Niladri Sen, the counsel of farmer Sabita Roy, who is yet to receive Rs 6 lakh approximately from the government.
Sen said that the problem started when the base rate of the acquired land did not match the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, 2013.
"The affected farmers received an amount lesser than what they should have received. The compensation that was transferred electronically to the bank accounts of the farmers did not mention what the amount was being paid for," he said, adding: "When we tallied the bank passbooks, we found that the compensation amounts did not tally with the list published by the Central government."
Imposters in the fray
According to the secretary of the Krishi Bastu Sangram Committee, Ratan Roy, several people have been compensated by the government for land that they do not own in any of the mouzas.
Some farmers claimed that "imposters" have bagged the bulk of compensation released by the NHAI.
Such is the case of Sabita Roy whose third tranche of compensation was paid to her impersonator's account in the State Bank of India in Assam's Bongaigaon. Roy, who has received Rs 11.01 lakh compensation in her bank in Alipurduras in two tranches said that she was awaiting her third payment of more than Rs 6 lakh.
"I have never been to Bangaigaon, let alone open a bank account in the neighbouring state," she said. "I learned that Rs 5.67 lakh was withdrawn from the said account in Assam by one Sukumar Karmakar, who posed as my father, showing that I was dead."
She said that she was not against giving her land to NHAI, but she expected the government to compensate her fairly.
Roy challenged the disbursement claim made by the ministry by filing a writ petition before the Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court on August 5, 2021.
The ministry, however, claimed that Sabita Roy was compensated with Rs 17.72 lakh with the third tranche of her payment amounting to Rs 5.67 lakh reaching her on September 24, 2020.
Sabita Roy lodged a complaint before the Kotwali police station, but to no avail. She then lodged a written complaint before the Bengal police chief and the Alipurduar district police.
Pinaki Sengupta, the special land acquisition officer and competent authority at the Jalpaiguri district magistrate's office, directed the Kotwali police to investigate allegations of discrepancy in compensation to Sabita Roy.
On September 30, the single bench of the Jalpaiguri bench of the Calcutta High Court directed officials to measure Sabita Roy's land on October 2, 2021, including building and structure, and assess the compensation she is entitled to according to the rules.
Seven others and two farmers groups also filed a writ petition before the Jalpaiguri bench of the Calcutta High Court. The NHAI pleaded for adjournment, which the court refused and set the next date of hearing on November 29, 2021.
Krishi Bastu Sangram Committee secretary Ratan Roy said that his mother, Binodini Roy, had received an arbitration notification, saying her land was acquired. But, there were no signs of compensation.
Binodini Roy also filed an individual writ petition before Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court.
Allegations of bribery and intimidation
Some farmers claimed they were coerced to give 'kickbacks' between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 5 lakh to the government officials through brokers to receive the compensation.
"I was forced to pay a bribe of Rs 1 lakh to Ratan Mandal ? a technical assistant with the Jalpaiguri land reforms office ? to get Rs 8 lakh compensation," alleged Champarani Sarkar (45) who lost 0.8 acres of land to NHAI's project.
Another farmer Subal Roy said he had to pay a bribe of Rs 5 lakh to the village panchayat head to get compensation for his father's 0.23 acres of land acquired by the NHAI.
The entire compensation package for the five mouzas in Alipurduars Block-II, has been disbursed by the district treasury office, according to Sanjeev Kumar Sharma general manager and project director of NHAI.
"We disbursed Rs 154 crore through the Jalpaiguri district magistrate's land acquisition section," an official, who did not wish to be named, told 101Reporters.
The NHAI has asked aggrieved farmers to contact the special land acquisition officer in Jalpaiguri for matters related to compensation.
"Those who have given their land to NHAI have been compensated as per the arbitral base rates. Only a handful of people in Chengpara are creating trouble by stalling the work on the project," Sharma said.
(The author is a Siliguri-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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