Undulating, lush, green paddy fields and quaint homesteads belie the simmering discontent at Chengpara village in North Bengal’s Alipurduar district. 

A motorcade hurtles down a dusty trail to the sleepy village, about 3 km from Alipurduar town. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) officials, accompanied by police personnel, district administration officials, and a couple of elected public representatives, disembark and look around officiously. The group departs as abruptly as it came.

The visit, villagers say, is a regular feature. This is an attempt to intimidate locals into ‘accepting’ the compensation given by the NHAI—the nodal body implementing the highway project connecting the strategic Siliguri Corridor, also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ with the rest of Northeast India—for parting with their dwellings and prime three-crop agricultural land for a proposed highway project. 

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The NHAI has acquired 170 hectares (42,012 decimals) of land for the extension of a 41-km four-lane highway—part of the east-west corridor of the Golden Quadrilateral, connecting Surat in Gujarat to Silchar in Assam—that cut through the heart of Northern Bengal’s rice, jute, and potato-growing hub.

The ethnic Rajbanshi-dominated village is one among the five Mouzas—including Salsalabari, Bhelukdabari, Chaparerpara, Chengpara and Sovaganj—where land was acquired for highway project—is embroiled in a legal wrangle for the compensation for land acquired by the NHAI.

Farmers from the five mouzas under Alipurduar Block-II have lost their land for the proposed NH-31D between Falakata and Salsalabari. They allege the compensation they received does not tally with a list published by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in November 2020 in a Bengali daily.

The alleged anomalies came to light after more than 500 families, led by an organisation of affected landowners, crossed-verified the names of land losers and compensation amount for 22.14 acres or 2,214 decimals of land acquired by NHAI in Chengpara Mouza.

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While NHAI officials claim they have disbursed ₹ 154 crore as compensation at an average rate of ₹ 1.20 lakh per decimal to more than 500 affected families, land losers, however, counter the claim, saying they have collectively received less than ₹54 crore in compensation. 

There is a mismatch of more than ₹100 crore in the compensation amount that the government claims to have disbursed, several landowners claim. 

Aggrieved farmers allege that few imposters bagged the bulk of the compensation, in connivance with a section of the NHAI and state land and land reforms department officials and local politicians.

The affected farmers also claim they were coerced to give ‘kickbacks’ ranging between ₹1 lakh and ₹5 lakh to the officials through brokers to receive compensation.

“I was a forced to pay a bribe of ₹ 1 lakh to Ratan Mandal—a technical assistant with the Jalpaiguri land reforms office—to get the ₹ 8 lakh compensation amount,” alleges Champarani Sarkar (45), who lost eight decimals of land to the project.

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Sushila Roy (44), who inherited her father late Khagen Adhikary’s property and lost eight decimals of land, claims she has not received any compensation from the government.

“There are several people who figure in the list and received compensation, but do not own any land in the Mouza,” says Ratan Roy, secretary, Krishi Bastu Sangram Committee (KBSC), the organisation floated by the land losers.

Another land losing farmer Subal Roy claims he had paid a kickback of ₹ 5 lakh to the village panchayat head for compensation for his father’s 23 decimals of land acquired by the NHAI.

Allegations are, however, rubbished by the project officials of the NHAI.

But the list of such allegations of anomalies is long.

The entire compensation package for the five Mouzas in Alipurduars Block-II, has been disbursed by the district treasury office, says a senior project official at NHAI, putting the ball in the court of the Jalpaiguri district administration.

“We have disbursed ₹ 154 crores through the Jalpaiguri district magistrate’s land acquisition section,” the official, who did not want to be named, tells EastMojo.

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“We have asked the aggrieved farmers to contact the special land acquisition officer in Jalpaiguri for matters related to land acquisition compensation…,” the NHAI official says.

At least two groups of aggrieved farmers have moved the court.

Petitioners from Chengpara have obtained a ‘stay order’ restraining the NHAI from starting the work on the project.

“The land losers were compensated as per to the arbitral base rates…only a handful of people in Chengpara are creating trouble…stalling work of the project,” the official quoted above says.

The villagers, however, claim they have found several discrepancies and mismatches in the actual compensation disbursed.

The land acquisition process by the NHAI has been faulty and there has been foul play right from the arbitration process, says Nilardi Sen, the lawyer of Sabita Roy.

After painstakingly cross verifying the compensation list, they found foul play in several cases, says Ratan Roy.

“When we tallied the compensation amounts mentioned in the list, we found there were several mismatches and irregularities. There are instances of people who do not own any land being compensated,” alleges Rajat Roy.

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The problem started right from the arbitration process, where we saw that the base rate of the acquired land process was not as per the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, concurs advocate Sen.

“We have found no answer about how the arbitration process was carried out and on what base rate the farmers received compensation.

“The affected farmers received far lesser amount of compensation than they are entitled to,” Sen tells EastMojo.

“The NHAI is trying to grab the land from the farmers. Compensation payment electronically transferred to the bank accounts of the farmers, do not mention under which head the amount was being paid. When we tallied the bank passbooks, we found that the compensation amounts did not tally with the list published by the ministry,” he says.

There are several cases of arbitration notification some land losers received, but they have not been compensated or their names don’t feature in the list published by the ministry, says Ratan Roy of the KBSC.

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Most landowners, EastMojo spoke to, claimed that the actual compensation they received is much less than the amount the ministry claimed to have disbursed to them.

One after another, stories of deceit

Sabita Roy (50), whose land measuring 10 decimal at Chengpara, was acquired by the NHAI for the project. Roy alleges that as per the list published by the ministry, a compensation of ₹ 17,72,755 was claimed to have been paid to her against the land at Chengpara, acquired from her.

Binodini Roy, who received a arbitration notification claiming that her 17 decimal land has been acquired by the NHAI, is yet to receive any compensation

“I have only received an amount of ₹ 11,01,567 as compensation for the land acquired in two tranches as per my bank passbooks: one in PNB and one in SBI, both in Alipurduar,” Roy tells EastMojo, sitting in her house in Chengpara, which she will lose once the project starts.

“I am yet to receive the balance amount of ₹ 6,11,188,” she says.

Sabita Roy has challenged the disbursement claim made by the ministry and filed a writ petition at the Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court earlier this month.

To counter Roy’s writ petition, NHAI officials and others filed an “affidavit-in-objection” in which it was claimed that the third tranche of ₹ 5,67,747 was paid to her on September 24, 2020, her advocate Niladri Sen tells EastMojo.

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“On inquiry, it was found that the third tranche of compensation was paid to her namesake at an account in a State Bank of India branch in Bongaigaon in Assam.”

Sabita Roy tells EastMojo that she has “never been to Bongaigaon, let alone open a bank account in the neighbouring state.”

Following the stunning discovery, she lodged a written complaint with the Bengal police chief and the Alipurduars district police superintendent among others, after the Kotwali police refused to accept her complaint.

“I learned that ₹ 5,67,747 was withdrawn from the said account in Assam by one Sukumar Karmakar, who impersonated as my father, showing that I was dead,” Sabita Roy tells EastMojo.

“I am not against giving land for the highway project…but I want the NHAI to compensate us fairly and transparently,” says Sabita Roy.

Following Sabita Roy’s complaint, Pinaki Sengupta—the special land acquisition officer and competent authority at the Jalpaiguri district magistrate’s office—directed the Alipurduars Kotwali police to investigate her allegation of discrepancy in payment of compensation.

The Kotwali police have been asked to investigate whether the holder of the three accounts are identical or different and the whole gamut of fraud /misrepresentation as alleged by Sabita Roy, Sengupta says.

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“Sabita Roy and seven others filed a writ petition at the Jalpaiguri Circuit Bench of the Calcutta High Court,” Sen tells EastMojo.

Advocate Niladri Sen (left) with Rajat Roy, the secretary of the BKSC, an organization floated by the land losers. Photo by Probir Pramanik

The Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court, hearing the writ petition on September 23, 2021, turned down the NHAI’s plea for an adjournment of the stay order and set the next hearing of the writ for November 29, 2021.

Another case is that of Binodini Roy, whose name did not figure in the list published by the ministry, but an arbitration notification was sent to her.

“Though the NHAI claims that 17 decimals out of the 45 decimals of land belonging to my mother Binodini Roy have been acquired, neither her name figures in the list published by the ministry, nor has any compensation been paid to her,” says Ratan Roy of KBSC.

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“Binodini Roy has filed an individual writ petition at the Jalpaiguri Circuit Bench of the Calcutta High Court,” adds Sen, who is also Binodini’s lawyer. “Even though the NHAI claims that they have acquired Binodini Roy land, on paper, there are no such records or any compensation given,” the lawyer adds. 

There are lot many anomalies and irregularities in the payment of compensation that need to be probed, says Rajat Roy.

Meanwhile, the NHAI officials accompanied by a posse of police personnel on September 25, 2021, demolished several houses with excavators and bulldozers at the Bhelukdabri Mouza despite the protests by the land losers who claim they have not been compensated enough for the land they have lost.

Compared to affected farmers in Chengpara Mouza, land losers in Bhelukdabari have been given compensation of ₹23,000 per decimal of land acquired by the NHAI.

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