Tapas Dutta (name changed), an Indianapolis-returned software professional, is desperate to sell off a 3,000-sq.ft residential plot he had bought near a place called Newtown on the north-eastern fringe of Kolkata. Till early June, Mr. Dutta was still dithering on selling but no longer. Three weeks have convinced him that he must get rid of the property.
“I was driving from Deara, further east, towards the city, when the car got stuck in mud. Suddenly a man slipped under my car requesting me not to start it as he was being chased by another group … for a while I thought it was a film, but it was not,” Mr. Dutta said.
But then again, that was not the only “gangster-film moment” in Mr. Dutta’s Kolkata life. Exactly a year ago, his friend, a local architect-cum-builder, was told that he would have to buy construction material at double the market prices. In addition, the material was substandard, Mr. Dutta said.
Many like Mr. Dutta who bought land in Kolkata’s satellite towns such as Newtown-Rajarhat through the “Internet” are now trying to dispose it of following a spate of violent incidents since the third week of May.
Almost every night, gangs hurl bombs, attack each other with rods, sticks and chains, often exchange fire from country-made weapons and occasionally display swords, police officers say. The police who routinely fire in the air to keep the gangsters under control say that bomb-making is the new “cottage industry” of the township.
At the core of the fights is the business of supply of construction material to hundreds of companies and residential blocks coming up in the Newtown-Rajarhat “villages”. The erstwhile Left Front government envisaged these townships, on the lines of Noida in Delhi or Vashi in Mumbai, as commercial-cum-residential hubs to relieve the pressure on Kolkata city in the early 1990s. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) formed 47 “land-losers cooperatives” to allot work to the farmers who lost their land to these projects. However, the cooperatives eventually disappeared and “syndicates” controlled by gangsters, came into being.
The farmers and the fishermen who lost land became suppliers of construction material with the government’s urbanisation plan but some of them ended up manufacturing and hurling bombs, says Nilotpal Dutta, a veteran activist fighting against land acquisition. Some of those who have refused to give up land, like Prahlad Mandal of Rajarhat, ended up in jail for “rioting”. Newspaper reports say at least 50 people lost their lives resisting land acquisition in the satellite townships developed for the upper-income group.
Nearly 40 hectares of the 12,500-hectare area of the Rajarhat-Newtown complex, consisting largely of farmland and ponds, has already been converted into industrial or residential complexes. The construction material business has also increased.
Mr. Dutta says the material suppliers make a profit of Rs. 5,000-7,000 from each lorry carrying stone chips. “There are thousands of lorries that enter the township area every night,” he says.