The West Bengal Cabinet on Monday decided to hand over land rights to those refugees, who came to the state for shelter after the 1971 Bangladesh War but are still living on land that belongs to the state, the Centre or private owners, in a bid to counter the Central government's decision to have a National Register for Citizens (NRC) across India.
"It is really sad that many refugee families still do not have any land of their own. Some live on land that belongs to the state, the Central government or private owners. There are around 1.25 lakh families. We have identified around 55,000 families that are living on Central government land and 13,353 families that lived on state land," chief minister Mamata Banerjee said after the Cabinet meeting.
She said all refugee colonies on government and private land measuring up to three acres will be regularized. "Many have agricultural land as well. The state government earlier regularized 94 refugee colonies (in the last two decades) located on state government land," she said.
"But there are several colonies that came up on land owned by the Centre or private owners. These people are often sent eviction notices. We have decided to earmark land and take care of this problem," said Banerjee.
The state cabinet's decision came on a day when assembly by-polls were held at Kaliaganj, Karimpur and Kharagpur Sadar assembly constituencies. The first two constituencies are located in North Dinajpur and Nadia districts, respectively, and along the India-Bangladesh border. Both have a sizeable number of families that fled from Bangladesh in or after 1971.
The NRC and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill were dominant issues in the assembly polls with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saying a sizeable section of those living in Bengal are illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. According to records of the state refugee, relief and rehabilitation department, the number of refugees entering India from East Pakistan in 1947 was around three million. After the 1971 War, the number rose to six million.
"This is nothing but a gimmick because the chief minister knows that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will soon be passed by Parliament and people have to prove their citizenship rights. For decades, we have been hearing that refugees would be given land rights but nothing happened. Nothing will happen now as well," BJP state general secretary Sayantan Basu said.
"The timing of the cabinet decision indicates that Banerjee is keen to stop polarization of votes before the upcoming municipal polls and the 2021 Assembly election," according to political analyst and columnist Suvashsis Maitra.