Nazneen Begum's day starts at the crack of dawn. After cleaning her rented one-room hut, she cooks and then feeds her 17-year-old son, who is mentally challenged. Leaving him under the care of her 14-year-old daughter, Nazneen catches the 6.15 am bus to one of the 60-odd housing complexes off VIP road in Kolkata to start work at 7 am sharp.
Nazneen, 58, works in the city as a domestic help. But she was not always one. Believe it or not, there was a time when she had her own house and about two 'bighas' (one 'bigha' is about 2,468 square metres) of farmland. Farming was the family occupation and they used to get by, albeit with a little difficulty. Unfortunately, life for Nazneen changed the day the West Bengal government decided to take over their meagre land holdings in Rajarhat, on the eastern fringes of Kolkata, to build a satellite township.
"We cultivated paddy on our land in Ghuni 'mouza'. The yield was about 1,080 kilograms every season. In between the three seasons a year, we cultivated vegetables. It was a simple life. We did not have to buy anything from outside. The government acquired our land in 2000 and the compensation was only Rs 120,000 (US$1=Rs 42.4). This money was soon spent on the treatment of my husband, who had met with a road accident at the time. He eventually passed away," recalls Nazneen.
According to Nilotpal Dutta, 59, of the Rajarhat Zameen Bacchao Committee, 40 villages have come under the land acquired by the government in Action Areas I, II and III in Rajarhat. "When we went to court on the environmental impact issue related to acquiring farm land and ponds, the government declared before the court that it was acquiring 3,075 hectares under 25 'mouzas'. The court, after a survey, gave permission to acquire only 622 hectares. But the government has sold over 3,000 hectares to promoters now, displacing 250,000 people," he reveals.
From Rs 3,000 per cottah (720 sq. ft.), the government compensation went up to Rs 14,000 per cottah in the last stages of acquisition depending on the lay of the land. Acquisition began in 1996 by the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited and concluded last year. However, land sharks are now paying farmers outside the Action Area up to Rs 500,000 per cottah, informs Dutta.
Those who received lump sums spent it without planning for the future. "When the government acquired our 5.5 cottah land in 2001, they paid us Rs 29,311. Outsiders were willing to pay about Rs 40,000 for the same land - that was its actual market value," says Renu Khatoon, 53, who works as a maid in a 525-apartment complex near the city airport. She has had to change her name - she has a Hindu name now - so that she could get work. "It's not just the humiliation of losing our land and looking for work. It's also about losing our identity. Several Muslim women like me pretend to be Hindus. We wear sindoor (vermilion), in order to get work in Marwari and Gujarati households in these complexes that have come up on our land. We even pay bribes to local councillors to certify our new identity for security clearance at the complexes," she adds.
Sitarani Sardar, 54, too, rues her bad fortune. "Our land was near the Hatiara mosque and Ram Mandir, but that too was acquired," she says. And the compensation they were paid was blown up on buying her 24-year-old son a motorcycle. Now, Sardar earns about Rs 1,500 as a domestic help and pays Rs 600 as rent to her landlord for a small hut near the Atghara crossing.
Several women in the mouzas of Salua, Ghuni, Jatragachi, Reckjoani and Patharghata have lost the money given as compensation to husbands, sons or other relatives. Many have also been cheated by brokers, who promised them land elsewhere and then vanished with the money. "I bought four cottahs of land near Atghara crossing with the money I got as compensation to make a house. However, after paying the money, I found out that the land was already registered in someone else's name. The broker cheated me. Now I don't have any money. I work as a cook in four apartments in the complexes that have come up on farming land like the one we lost, to make a living," says Motirani, 45.
The victims of land acquisition received compensation, which was not up to market standards, and they spent the money at one go for constructing a house or marrying off a daughter or buying vehicles for wastrel sons. Most of them did not invest any money.
Mahamaya Mondal, who lost land at Patherghata mouza, says, "My husband is paralysed waist down. We spent the compensation money to marry our two daughters. Now, I work at a club as a bathroom attendant, doing both morning and night shifts to earn money."
According to Dutta, "On the one hand, there has been no guidance given to these poor farmers on how to invest and make the compensation money last. Neither has alternative land been provided to them to set up homes. On the other, the government, which has paid poor compensation, has sold the land at rates ranging from Rs 150,000 per cottah to promoters at the upcoming township."
Big builders like DLF, Unitech, Keppel Magus, Gujrat Ambuja and Shrachi have bought land in the Rajarhat Satellite Township Action Areas for building huge housing complexes. Information Technology parks by DLF and Shapoorji Palonji and a hospital by Tata have also come up, along with conference halls and five star hotels.
And of the people who were displaced due to these land acquisitions, the government has rehabilitated only 17 per cent, says a Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report.
But the women have no doubt survived. From cleaning to cooking, from washing clothes and utensils to dusting, from working as security guards in complexes and as bathroom attendants at clubs, they are doing all sorts of jobs to make a living and feed their children. But they are often waging a losing battle, with their children dropping out of school - often after class IV - and their husbands being prodigal with the small compensations that have come their way.
But even those women whose husbands or sons work, as rickshaw pullers or as daily labourers - occupations farmers are not trained for - are unhappy. It is indeed ironic that the land acquisition meant to solve urban housing problems has rendered the rural poor, homeless and poorer by at least another generation.