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Land Developers Eye Top Cultural Campus, Kolkata


Land Developers Eye Top Cultural Campus, Kolkata

Last updated: June 14 2007
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  • Land Developers Eye Top Cultural Campus, Kolkata

    INDIA: Land Developers Eye Top Cultural Campus
    By Keya Acharya

    SANTINIKETAN, West Bengal, Jun 13 (IPS) - Intellectuals in this famous university town founded by nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, 210 km from Kolkata, have taken the state government to court for defacing its unique cultural and environmental heritage in the name of development.

    An open-air 3,000-acre autonomous university with a history of internationally famous faculty and alumni, including another Indian nobel laureate, the economist, Amartya Sen, Santiniketan's rugged natural beauty have inspired Tagore and several famous artists and scholars since its inception in 1921.

    Santiniketan is also a popular tourist destination which includes Tagore's university, now called Visva Bharati.

    But the government-run Santiniketan-Sriniketan Development Authority (SSDA)'s slew of major housing and commercial projects is causing anguish among Bengali intellectuals.

    "This is just part of the state government's pattern of development that is causing such distress in West Bengal," says Partha Ghose, retired faculty of Visva Bharati, now with the Bose National Centre of Basic Sciences at Kolkata.

    West Bengal's leftist government caused a national uproar in January this year with its bid to forcefully acquire 14,000 acres of agricultural land in Nandigram in Midnapore district for an Indonesian industrial conglomerate, the Selim Group.

    The land was to be acquired under India's new and controversial Special Economic Zones (SEZs) wherein the government gives lands at lower-than-market rates with tax exemptions and large incentives to industry.

    West Bengal's Marxist government, in power for over 30 years, is now trying to ‘develop' the state's low performance index by inviting private industrial ventures with various incentives that are dispossessing rural populations.

    In 2005, the state government gave 25 acres of agricultural land in Bhangur, 25 km from the capital city Kolkata, to the Selim group for a road and real-estate venture. Protests from local farmers over their poor rehabilitation package went largely unheeded.

    In the same year, the government gave 1,000 acres of farmland at Singur, 40 km from Kolkata, to the giant Tata group for a car-manufacturing plant.

    Protests from farmers and ‘bargadars' or sharecroppers developed into a state-wide agitation led by opposition Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, with violence and police repression ensuing. Discussions over those sharecroppers who have lost out are still continuing.

    In Nandigram, reports of police brutality on agitating farmers unwilling to give up fertile lands has led to a series of heated debates in parliament over the government's handling of the issue.

    The matter is still to be resolved, in spite of the state chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya conceding the acquisition to be a "mistake". Farmers have yet to receive their official papers declaring the lands as having been returned.

    "This is not the first time that police brutality has happened in this so-called leftist, socialist State," says Magsasay award-winning activist and writer, Mahasweta Devi.

    Devi has taken the government to court in Santiniketan over their planned filling up of a 17.7acre, centuries-old water body called ‘Lahabandh', traditionally accessed by local people and home to several bird species. The government wants to turn the pond into a commercial entertainment park.

    "The present condition of Lahabandh, which is already partially filled, will unfortunately not allow surface run-off during these monsoons," rues Sushanta Tagore, grandson of Rabindranath.

    "What is the value of Tagore's name and its value for India, if the cultural ethos of what he built is being defaced ?" asks Devi. Sushanta Tagore and 14 others including famous writers, film-makers, artistes and activists have also gone to court charging the local development body with encroaching university land and with indiscriminate construction that is destroying the purpose of establishing Santiniketan.

    India's Supreme Court, which heard Tagore's appeal, has ordered that Santiniketan's future land-use plans be sensitive to Tagore's ideals, as well as obey environmental laws.

    The court however, did not halt construction already underway, which encouraged Bengal Ambuja, a real estate company in collaboration with the local authorities, to continue with their project. The university has blocked access to the site through its campus.

    Mahasweta Devi now spearheads a citizens' campaign called ‘All of Us‘ to halt construction activity on the land. "This new campaign spearheaded by Mahasweta Devi has infused youth and encouraged me to continue fighting this terrible defacement", says Tagore's grandson.

    Santiniketan however is seeing an unprecedented rise in tourism and urbanisation that is spearheading real estate interest in the place. "I am apprehensive about environmental fallouts from all this rapid urbanization,'' worries Ghose
    What about developing similar other campuses across India?
    Manoj Misra

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