Friday, July 2, 2010

New Town Blues and Hues

~ New Town Skyline (Action Area III) ~

Where in the heck is 'New Town' anyway ?

This new industrial and residential hub is being developed on the north-eastern fringes on Calcutta, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It consists of the two erstwhile villages Rajarhat and Gopalpur, which is now a city and municipality named 'Rajarhat Gopalpur'. The area mainly consisted of huge acres of cultivable lands and water bodies. The process of investing for residential and industrial facilities and infrastructural development of the area has mainly started under the leadership of present Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in the late 1990s.

The New Town, Kolkata is planned on some Mouzas of Rajarhat Block in North 24-Parganas and those of Bhangar-I & Bhangar-II Blocks in South 24-Parganas. The central area of New Town is 10 km. from Kolkata's Central Business District and about a kilometre from the International Airport. The New Town is being planned as a major hub for business, trade, industries, IT, institutions and culture. Though it is planned as a self-contained nodal growth centre, the New Town will be integrated fully with the future spatial/ functional structure of the metropolis.

The vast expanse of open lands has been separated into Action Areas (I, II and III). Action Areas are to New Town, what Sectors are to Salt Lake; just several times bigger.

The comparison to the Coen brothers tale of blood and gore is quite apt. Just like in the movie, Rajarhat has become the 'Wild Wild East' where lawlessness rules; illegal practices are rife; and it has become a hot bed of State politics. It has been a victim of a political tug-of-war , with investors and end-users being mere pawns in this game. There is no viable solution in sight.

I hope to raise this issue in a forum, where all affected buyers and investors can collate thoughts; check on developments and the state of the union, at the same time solutions to a stalemate that seems to have been reached

And who is WBHIDCO again ?

West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. was set up as a Government Company on 26th April, 1999. Though this Corporation has a state-wide mandate, its immediate focus area is the development of a planned town near the City of Kolkata towards its north eastern fringe. This Corporation has been given wide powers to acquire and sell land, for different purposes, develop the entire range of infrastructure services, construct housing & commercial premises and also to maintain the New Town till such time a regular body is established for the delivery of such services.

WBHIDCO has been up against a stiff resistance from landowners who have been politically motivated by a certain political party whose sole job, it seems is to fireadd fuel to the and stonewall any development in the State. Such is the sorry state of affairs that even WBHIDCO has thrown in the towel, and is simply in a "wait-and-watch" mode.

So what ails New Town ?

It is hard to stay apolitical in times such as these. Despite the best efforts and intents of WBHIDCO and the State government, and even the developers the opposition has remained stiff against infrastructural work (laying drainage and sewerage lines, erection of electrical towers).

The story of the opposition party backing the local resistance goes some what like this - "The poor farmers have been duped by the State government and HIDCO into selling their lands at throw away prices. However in turn the State government aspires to earn big bucks by leasing out the land to the developers for building high rises."

It is however not true that all farmers or land owners are disgruntled with selling their land, a visit to the Rajarhat will tell you that. There are land owners, who have been far sighted to see the economic boom that Rajarhat can turn out to be, given the high levels of investment in the township. The classic divide between agrarian and industrialized economy still fuels the fire. I do agree that the land-owners should not be given a raw deal, however in a free economy you have to let the market correct itself. So when the government bought land, it too was taking a risk by biting into a pie as big as Rajarhat. They bought land on the cheap as per the rates back then. Now since then the prices have gone up, the place holds a promise, the corporates are showing interest and they have deep pockets. Seeing all this has caused a local mutiny politically led by the opposition to prick the development balloon floated by the State government. This is not really because they care for the fate of the land owners, simply because it gives them a political agenda !

Now figure this out - the State government bought/acquired land directly from farmers and other landowners at mutually agreeable prices, back in the days and leased the land out to developers and commercial interests in aspiration to build a planned city, just outside the chaotic confines of what is come to be known as Kolkata.

The State government even mandates in joint-venture with building developers that they have to offer affordable housing to the low and middle income class people. So in most all the projects in the New Town area - a developer is required to offer LIG (Low Income Group), Middle Income Group (MIG) and High Income Group(HIG) variety of accommodation. HIDCO and the State government even mandates strict income requirements for LIG and MIG sectors, so as to prevent surrogate and unscrupulous investors. LIG and MIG accommodations are grossly subsidizes, where as the developers have been given a free run in the HIG sector - to pocket any amount of profit the developers desire. Correct me if I am wrong - this to me is a very socialistic gesture by the government which needs to be lauded.

Now I am not going to allude that there has been no wrong-doing, or there are no land sharks, and/or no unscrupulous entities in an area what has seen the biggest spurt in development activities in eastern India. Like they say , "No good deed goes unpunished" - there might have been illegal practices or even forcible acquisition of land in some cases. Now then, you are not going to tell me that the entire city of New Town has been built on skeletons and all land has been acquired forcibly.

It is a law order situation, to resolve matters of property dispute, land-sharks and some times even family disputes owing to land transactions. However the customers and investors in the New Town dream feel like being cheated too - after investing lakhs of rupees and paying hefty mortgage EMI's to banks and financial situations; what they get is an uncertain and bleak future of what was promised to be the gateway to modern living in the east !

The State government being the task master to the law and order and the administration machinery in the state also deserves a lot of flak in this regard - they should have handled the situation in a more pragmatic way, especially when the future aspirations of millions of present and future flat owners is at stake !

An excerpt from the press release in October of 2009 reads as follows :

"The West Bengal government has stopped giving possession of plots in Rajarhat on the eastern fringes of Kolkata because it is unable to acquire land to build civic infrastructure such as roads and underground sewers. Due to unavoidable circumstances, "infrastructure development work has been retarded to a considerable extent", West Bengal Housing and Infrastructure Development Corp. Ltd (Hidco) said in a recent notice to people to whom plots have been allotted.

Click here for the complete report.

So how will this blog help ?

Besides raising awareness, we will present CIP (Case in Points) - every week starting this week in July 2010. We will present for you one of the projects, complete with most recent construction pictures, approach roads, surrounding development, status updates, video posts and more. We will visit the offices of the developers and HIDCO talk to their representatives and get you the feedback and their trend of thought. We will also to try to talk to the locals and get their take on it. We will make an effort to collaborate with the media on this, so that they can carry this as their lead story and work with us on the agenda of bringing peace and development to New Town, so that the dreams and aspirations of thousands of families can come to fruition. Now this will take a lot of hard work and blogging. Let's get started.

Finally, in the words of John Lennon - "You may say I am a dreamer, but I'm not the only one ...". Enough said, now enjoy the song !

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