Calcutta, Feb. 19: Infrastructure giant Larsen and Toubro (LandT) has withdrawn its "men and machinery" from a Metro Railway project in the northern suburbs of Calcutta "since there is no availability of clear site in a substantial patch".
The reason cited in a letter in effect means India's biggest builder of Metro projects is not finding room to work in the city because the Bengal government will not persuade squatters on a 5km stretch of railway land to leave.
If the impasse is not resolved, the Noapara-Barasat project will remain in limbo and the matter could reach the courts at some point.
More important, it will send another loud signal that professional groups do not find Bengal conducive to operate in. The Rs 280 crore involved in the specific contract may not be a clinching amount for the company that piled up a revenue of Rs 70,000 crore last year but the impact on Bengal's already stained reputation will be grave.
The project, scheduled to be completed in 2016, was conceived by Mamata Banerjee when she was railway minister. But the state government appears to have lost interest after Trinamul pulled out of the UPA government.
Over the past year, Metro Railway has written "at least 10 letters to the state government and held over 20 meetings" about the stretch but the official response has been standard: no forcible eviction.
After waiting for months and shifting a part of the light equipment, LandT has now taken away heavy machinery, including rigs required for piling and transit mixers used to carry readymade concrete. The casting yard, set up to construct girders, is deserted now.
LandT wrote in a recent letter to Metro Rail: "Since there is no availability of clear site in a substantial patch, we have withdrawn our machinery and manpower."
Radhey Shyam, the general manager of Metro Rail, confirmed: "LandT has withdrawn all its machinery and manpower from the project site as we couldn't hand over the land to them. They have also written to us seeking compensation."
The compensation was sought in another letter, sources said. "Our manpower and machinery are lying idle. The lease/rental charges for the land taken for construction of a casting yard has to be incurred," LandT said in the letter.
An LandT spokesperson said: "We would not like to comment on a contractual matter involving the company and its client."
Railway sources said the company found it difficult to work on small stretches of land. The firm told the railway that a minimum 2km clear stretch and a proper approach road were essential, according to the sources.
Metro GM Shyam said: "We have held a number of meetings with the state government and the local administration but the encroachment has yet to be removed."
The Railway Protection Force has the power to evict encroachers as its task is to protect railway property and passengers. But eviction has the potential to flare up into a law-and-order issue ' a state subject that can only be handled by police and the local administration. "Without the help of the local police and state administration, eviction is not possible," a railway official said.
In an interview with The Telegraph on August 5 last year, LandT chairman A.M. Naik had suggested a change in Mamata's land policy. "A distinction should be made between commercial transaction and essential infrastructure projects. World over, this is made," Naik had said.
But intervention does not figure in the lexicon of the Mamata government whose hands-off land policy has become the biggest liability in attracting investments. Offers of alternative settlements and political persuasion have been shelved after Mamata pulled out of the UPA.
"We have requested the Metro authorities not to go in for forcible eviction as far as possible. They should try to solve the problem through dialogue as far as possible," said a top official of the state government.
Metro Rail officials said it was impossible to evict the encroachers through dialogue. "We had offered them alternative land and promised to relocate them back here after construction was completed. But there has been no effect," an official said.
Work on several projects in Calcutta is stalled because of the government's reluctance to force encroachers to move out but this is the first time a company has pulled out personnel because of the problem.
In October 2011, LandT had won the Rs 280-crore contract for the 5km stretch in the Rs 2,397-crore project connecting Noapara near Dum Dum and Barasat that links the airport with the northern suburbs. The company was to build overhead tracks and stations on railway land between Madhyamgram and Barasat.
But work could never start in earnest because of around 1,900 unauthorised structures ' 1,090 hutments and 800-odd shops ' covering most of the stretch.
Delhi Metro had also faced land-related problems but they were resolved after the state government intervened.