At a time when the state government began to breathe easy after near elimination of CPI(Maoist) cadres nn Bengal, a little-known Naxalite faction has emerged to lead a high-profile land agitation near Kolkata giving sleepless night to intelligence officers. CPI(ML) (Red Star), a Naxalite outfit that has contested elections has token presence in Kerala and West Bengal, has become the key organiser of a movement of villagers demanding cancellation of a power grid project designed to transmit electricity through high tension overhead lines.
“All the leaders of the movement belong to the CPI(ML) (Red Star). We never monitored their activities because they held little influence,” a senior police officer told HT on the condition of anonymity.
Though the project is of Power Grid Corporation of India, a Central PSU, the Mamata Banerjee administration wants to ensure the smooth passage of the project. The villagers are demanding that the land occupied by the transmission towers be returned to them.
The leaders the police are keeping a close watch on are Alik Chakraborty, Sharmistha Chowdhury and Pradip Singh Thakur, all leaders of the Red Star faction of CPI(ML). The leader of the party is K N Ramachandran, who hails from Kerala.
Thakur and Chakraborty are politburo members of the party and Choudhury a central committee member. Chakraborty is also the spokesperson of the committee spearheading the movement.
The movement spearheaded by Jami, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (Committee to secure Land, Livelihood, Environment and Ecosystem) started gaining momentum in November 2016. By December, chief minister Mamata Banerjee instructed two influential ministers from South 24-Parganas district, Kolkata mayor cum environment minister Sovan Chatterjee and food processing minister Abdur Rejjak Mollah, a former prominent leader of the district, to speak to the agitators and pacify them.
So far the TMC leaders have failed in their mission, and the movement gained momentum in the past few days. Thousands are gathering whenever the committee gives a call for blockade or gathering. Prominent human rights activist Sujato Bhadra, who also played a role in Singur and Nandigram agitations led by Mamata Banerjee, joined the protesters.
Several human rights groups, university students have also joined the agitation.
The outfit’s presence in Bengal has been so insignificant that when its candidate Shikha Sen Roy contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Dumdum constituency, she got only 1,544 votes - the least among all candidates.
According to the protesters, 16 acres of land was acquired for the power grid two years ago, mostly without any protest because local toughs were involved in the process. Protests started in October 2016 when farmers refused to allow the authorities to set up electricity towers on their fields.
On Tuesday, thousands of villagers clashed with the police and rained brickbats on them when cops went to disperse agitators blocking a few roads in the area.
The protests are centred around the villages of Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona and Gazipur of Polerhat-II panchayat in Bhangar assembly constituency. According to local farmer Rahman Ali Mondal, the landowners are not only worried that setting up towers on their land will bring down the price but also fear of extremely harmful effects under the strong magnetic fields created by high tension lines.
The Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd is constructing the Rajarhat 400/220 KV substation to transmit power between West Bengal and Purnia in Bihar. The transmission lines from Rajarhat will pass over 80 villages of seven districts of West Bengal, before entering into Pakur district of the state of Jharkhand.
“The nine to twelve transmission lines coming out of the Rajarhat Grid will affect more than 30,000 lives only in South 24 Parganas,” Alik Chakraborty told a gathering of nearly 10,000 people who blocked a major road on January 11.
According to Nisha Biswas, a scientist who has joined the movement, “High tension lines create strong electromagnetic fields (EMF). The EMF can extend to about 300 meters and is the strongest directly under the power lines, and gradually fades away with increasing distance. Many have experienced mild electric shocks while walking under lines while walking with an umbrella even on a clear day. The field is so high that if one places florescent tube under the current carrying high voltage wire, it lights itself without any electric connection.”