KOLKATA: In a U-turn of sorts, the maa-mati-manush government is all set to give relaxation on mati, more specifically land ceiling, to make way for townships, logistic hubs, education and medical institutions — a provision it cancelled only two years ago in April 2012 after riding to power on the Singur-Nandigram movement.
A draft Bill — West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill — proposes to bring back the relaxation clause under section 14Y given to commercial, civic and infrastructure projects during the Left Front rule.
If things go according to plan, a host of proposals — townships, terminals, logistic hubs, tea gardens, educational and medical institutions, fishery projects, piped transportation of oil and gas, mining and allied activities — are likely to get exemption under the West Bengal Land Reforms Act that debars entities from holding 24 acres in non-irrigated areas and 17 acres in irrigated areas.
According to government sources, business entities already have 12,000 acres of land in possession but are not declaring this because of the land ceiling. The draft Bill allows these entities to hold on to land beyond the land ceiling with permission from the government. To avail this opportunity, they have to declare their land assets and submit project proposals to the government. The government will vest the excess land but allow the entity to use it according to the project proposal once it is approved. The entity has to start work within three years of the approval, failing which the government will take back the land.
Two years ago when Partha Chatterjee was industries minister, the government had argued that setting up townships was not its priority and it would concentrate on affordable housing for low and middle-income groups. The plan didn't work out as the minister said. On the contrary, expansion of urban infrastructure suffered. The government didn't receive any private proposal or FDI to set up mega townships like Rajarhat New Town or the Kolkata West International City in the last two years. The cash-strapped government also couldn't release funds to set up infrastructure on its own.
A rethink started after Amit Mitra took over the industry portfolio. With chief minister Mamata Banerjee desperate to shake off the government's "anti-industry" image, the government gave a push for talks with all stakeholders and strike a golden mean. Some of the realtors urged the government to raise the land ceiling limit under clause 14M, and there was a pressing demand for relaxing the land ceiling for commercial and industrial projects. In fact, the chief minister held a meeting with the Tata companies recently and assured them that land won't be a problem for project expansion. The draft Bill is the first step indicating the government's change of stance from a land-neutral administrator to a facilitator.
Former land and land reforms minister and now an Independent MLA, Abdur Rezzak Mollah, has his doubts though. "It is very easy to say that the government will take back the land if the project doesn't start within three years from the zero date. Entities put up a boundary wall around the site and mortgage the entire land to banks against loans. The government has to go through a prolonged legal route to take back a mortgaged property," Mollah said.