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West Bengal Governor forms team to study utilisation of lands, earlier grabbed and now recovered from ‘suspended’ TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan

Experts suggest that instead of agriculture, pisciculture would be "an economically viable alternative" on these farmlands in Sandeshkhali.

On Sunday (17th March), a Raj Bhavan official informed that West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose has formed a team of experts to study the recovered land of villagers in Sandeshkhali that was illegally grabbed by former TMC strongman Sheikh Shahjahan and his accomplice.

As per reports, the lands were turned into fish farms. The team of experts will also suggest ways to utilise these lands as constant use for fish farming has rendered them unfit for agriculture.  

The official added that the committee constituted by the Governor includes the former secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare, SK Pattanayak, and an FAO expert. They will study the issue and suggest ways of land utilisation in Sandeshkhali.

The official said, “So far, over 250 plots of the snatched lands have been returned to their original owners. But vast swathes of farmlands had remained submerged under the saline water of the fish farms for more than two to three years, causing much damage to the topsoil. A layer of salt has settled down on those lands that may not be able to produce crops for at least the next five to ten years.” 

The Raj Bhavan official further added, “We have to keep a watch on how people and the lands of Sandeshkhali fare in the short, medium, and long terms. Both the people and their lands may need time to get out of the terrible spell cast on them by their oppressors. The civil society and the government must handhold them in regaining their confidence and find their rightful places.” 

Additionally, during his recent visit to New Delhi, Governor Bose had visited the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to hold discussions with experts on the matter.

Draining of saline water for fish farming rendered these land unfit for agriculture: Experts

Speaking with PTI, experts in the field stated that the topsoil of these recovered farmlands from suspended TMC leader Shajahan Sheikh has become unfit for agriculture due to the draining of saline water for fish farming. According to them, the topsoil in these villagers’ farmland needs to be replaced to make them suitable for cultivation again.

Experts suggest that instead of agriculture, pisciculture would be “an economically viable alternative” on these farmlands.

Regarding the current health status of these farmlands, former vice chancellor of Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya Chittaranjan Kole said, “The topsoil is the most fertile part of farmland and has the highest concentration of organic matter and micro-organisms that help plants to grow. In the lands of Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas district, that layer has been damaged by the saline water and needs to be replaced.”

He added, “The longer a land stays under saline water, the longer it would take it to revive. The thumb rule is that if a land is under water for one year, it will take two years to recuperate.” 

Kole emphasised that the salt deposits on the lands need to be removed first. Subsequently, the farmlands have to be dug up at least three feet, and then fresh earth needs to be layered on top. He noted, “Later, salt-tolerant varieties of paddy may be cultivated but it would take a few years.” 

However, Former deputy director general of the ICAR, Swapan Kumar Dutta stated that instead of farming, fishery could be a viable alternative on these lands.

Dutta said, “Making these lands fit for agriculture again will take time, effort, and money. Instead, fish farming will be an economically viable alternative. But the government needs to intervene. The farmer who has little or no knowledge of fish farming would have to be hand-held for a few years.”

Agriculture experts start taking soil samples

According to reports, several teams comprising agriculture experts from the district and the block administration have already started visiting these farmlands and collecting samples for soil testing.

A senior official of North 24 Parganas district said, “Once we get the reports, we will be able to decide as to how much damage has been done and what could be done.”

He added that the administration was also planning to dig up canals and ponds so that rainwater may be stored once monsoon sets in around June.

The official further stated, “Then, this freshwater may be used to irrigate the lands. Also, freshwater in the canals and ponds would gradually seep into the farmlands and mitigate the effect of the salt.” 

He also maintained that some salt-tolerant paddy varieties may be cultivated which would depend on the salinity of the soil. He added, “Soil samples are being tested.” 

The district irrigation department has also reportedly formed water association groups comprising villagers on how to use the rainwater stored in the ponds. It may be used to produce freshwater fish and also to irrigate the farmlands.

Land grabbing, sexual exploitation by TMC goons, threats of gang rape: Sandeshkhali Horror

Tensions have been high in Sandeshkhali since January when local women staged protests demanding the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan and his accomplices Uttam Sardar and Shibu Prasad Hazra. The Sandeshkhali women have accused them of forcibly acquiring land, pumping saltwater into fields to render them unusable, and engaging in institutional sexual harassment. 

The women have accused them of sexually assaulting women “night after night and release them only when they are satisfied”. All three accused Shibu Hazra, Uttam Sardar, and the accused mastermind Sheikh Shahjahan have been arrested. However, the Calcutta High Court came down heavily and issued a contempt notice to West Bengal Police for the delay in Shahjahan’s arrest stating, “One person can’t hold the entire population to ransom” and his subsequent transfer of custody to CBI. 

In another case pertaining to the assault on ED officials in Sandeshkhali, the CBI has arrested three accused, including Shajahan Sheikh’s brother Sheikh Alomgir.

The arrested accused include Sheikh Alomgir, who is Shahjahan Sheikh’s brother, Mafujar Molla, the president of the TMC’s student wing in Sandeshkhali, and Sirajul Molla, a local.

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