NTPC is making a ‘last-ditch attempt’ to revive its 1,600-Mw supercritical thermal power project at Katwa in Burdwan, 170 km away from Kolkata. But the country’s largest power generating company is worried over middlemen’s involvement in the land acquisition process and high prices being quoted by farmers.
"We have heard the villagers are being approached by middlemen. We will meet them directly and are confident enough to convince them," said Shibasish Basu, assistant general manager, one of the eight NTPC officials stationed at Katwa to initiate the land acquisition process.
NTPC has to acquire land directly from the farmers, as the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TC) government is not ready to buy land for any project. Chairman and managing director Arup Roy Choudhury had earlier said "we have no problems in buying the land directly", though the state-run power producer has no experience in it.
The Rs 9,600-crore project envisages the acquisition of 1,030 acres of land, but the erstwhile Left Front government was able to acquire only 556 acres through the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd (WBPDCL), due to resistance from locals then backed by the TC. The project was initially supposed to be set up by WBPDCL. But after stiff resistance from land losers, the project was handed over to NTPC in 2008. NTPC signed a memorandum of understanding for power purchase with the then Left Front government in 2010. The present state government has already said it will not meddle with land acquisition and the industry should do it on its won. The state government had even asked the power major to build the plant on the 556 acres. The power major is yet to get possession of the land acquired by WBPDCL.
For people in Katwa and nearby villages like Koshigram and Churpuni, NTPC is a golden goose that they are ready to reap benefits from. "Earlier, WBPDCL had paid a price of Rs 7 lakh-12 lakh per acre. Now, we have heard NTPC will pay the same amount. In three years, land prices have doubled, so we need much more, close to Rs 20 lakh. We want NTPC to talk directly to us and give a fair price,” said Tapan Kumar Ghoshal, who owns three acres in Churpuni. “Some of us were approached by middlemen offering us a higher price and a racket is quite active in this locality.”
But NTPC is pretty confident there will be no ‘Singur rerun’ in Katwa. Krishak o Khet Majoor Bachao Committee, the TC-backed association spearheading agitation during the Left rule, is almost non-functional now. “Those are things from the past, the committee is no more functional. We don’t want the project to go back, like it happened in Singur in the case of Nano. But they (NTPC) must respect our feelings and should talk to us collectively,” said Hari Krishna Pal, a former activist of the committee.
A top official from NTPC said the firm would do “whatever it can to retain the project”, as it is one of the pet projects of its chairman and managing director.
“We will get control of land within this month and then the acquisition process will kick off. Now, the officials here are doing the ground work, talking to the villagers. We have also hired four retired WBPDCL officials who were involved with the earlier acquisition process. We are getting positive response from them. We will support them by all means, by giving them special training on plant related jobs,” Basu said.
A top official from the state power ministry said, “Even in the new Land Bill adopted, power was not included as a public purpose project, making matters difficult for NTPC and other players,” Even the state power utility’s 30 substation projects are stuck due to land acquisition issues.
Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had said, “How is it possible to invest in the state for industries when the state government has such a land policy for which industries will not get land. NTPC has been facing issues as far as acquiring land for the power plant in Katwa is concerned.” On the other hand, state commerce and industries minister Partha Chatterjee has said the state will give full support to NTPC.
Meanwhile, at ground zero, the farmers are working in the acquired land to earn their livelihood. “Yes, this is no more my land. My land was taken way back for power plant, but how long will I wait for a new job. So, I have started cultivating on these farmlands again,” said Pradyut Ghosh, a land loser, who was working in the acquired fields.