With assembly elections knocking at the door, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has become conscious of the menace and rule of terror of the crime syndicates and their bosses. The syndicates have been active in West Bengal for years, but the Mamata government preferred to ignore their presence. The reason was that they suited to the needs of the Trinamool Congress and its government.
“Syndicate” is slang for construction material cartels run with the alleged backing of a section of ruling party leaders that force contractors to buy inferior building materials at high prices. The syndicates are mostly manned by unemployed foot soldiers who had been promised jobs that failed to materialise in the absence of industrialisation. The bosses of the syndicates are usually the top criminals who have everything at their command.
Even the police is reluctant to take action against them. On February 8, Justice Dipankar Dutta of Calcutta High Court was forced to observe; “Ask police to take strong measures against such syndicate raj. The situation is so alarming that members of syndicates are not even sparing Calcutta High Court. The Court has been facing similar problems while constructing court buildings at Salt Lake and Asansol”. In Asansol, a syndicate had stalled work on a Rs 11-crore court complex, demanding that the private contractor buy construction materials from the group.
While hearing a petition by a promoter, Mohammed Ismile, Justice Dutta quipped, the problem had spread across the State. He directed the counsel appearing for the Mamata Banerjee government to ask the police to take steps to curb the problem. Justice Dutta even cautioned to make sure that the police took stern action “else the situation will go beyond control if the state administration does not immediately intervene”.
The clout of the syndicate bosses could be understood from the simple fact that they are addressed as “sirs” by the police officials. Though their area of operation is mainly visible in Calcutta and its periphery, they have spread their tentacles throughout the State. The syndicate thrives on extortion. With the prospect of job creation turning bleak, the youth have turned towards syndicates. Their clout is so strong that the police do not dare to arrest them in spite of having specific allegations against them. These people are also noble souls in the eyes of the police, as the bosses take care of the family needs of the police also.
According to contractors of Rajarhat, the boss employs local toughs who accompany him to construction sites on their motorbikes when other methods of coercion fail. If a businessman or a contractor is under diktat to purchase the construction materials, even a small house owner desirous of renovating or repairing his house will have to seek permission of the syndicate and also buy the construction materials from him. Truckload of bricks that usually contains around 4,000 pieces becomes half and the prices are doubled. The syndicate kingpin also cheats on quality. The market rate for grade I brick is Rs 10 per piece, but syndicates supply grade III bricks procured at Rs 6 per piece and bill them for grade I.
The situation has turned so alarming that the High Court expressed concern over the “syndicate raj” in Bengal. Recently, Justice Sanjib Banerjee directed the Bidhannagar Police commissioner to form a special team to take action against syndicates operating in Rajarhat New Town. The order came after denial by the counsel of Trinamool government of its existence. Most syndicates operate in New Town as rapid urbanisation has been taking place. Many of the original land-owners, who sold their plots for office blocks and residential complexes, turned to trading in building material. They started coercing builders to buy material from them at abnormally steep rates. The builders also complained that the material on offer is of inferior quality compared to that available ion market.
These syndicate bosses often pose as super humans and say that that their only objective is to help people. They also deny their involvement in extortion. Quite interestingly, almost all of them deny their involvement in any political activity, but they confess of being Trinamool supporters. Nevertheless, syndicates have disrupted construction in an over Rs 300-crore real estate project in New Town to teach the contractors a lesson as they dared to procure materials from other sources. The reason was the contractors, Simplex Infrastructure, constructing Elita Garden Vista, a joint venture between Keppel Land and Magus Estates of the Jatia Group in Action Area III in Newtown decided to purchase some material directly from market.
In Bengal, the ‘syndicates’ that routinely terrorise investors and engage in extortion have nearly replaced the rule of law. This has been possible because all these syndicates are led and controlled by politicians belonging to the ruling party. In fact, the Syndicate took birth during the Marxist regime but blossomed under the Trinamool rule. Marxist regime paved the path for the syndicates and Trinamool enabled them with political legitimacy. Syndicates have always been part of the construction boom in south Bengal.
The fallout of the emergence of syndicate has been shocking. Many people who bought land in Rajarhat New Town through the “Internet” are now trying to dispose it. Even some landowners in the city are contemplating selling their lands as they are not in a position to build their dream houses.
Often the syndicate goons indulge in bloody clashes. While most of the clashes owe to the business interest and one group entering into the domain of another, clashes also take place on the issue of capturing areas. Groups always prefer to control one particular area so that they can conveniently sell their materials to the constructors in that particular area. At the core of the fights is the business of supply of construction material to hundreds of companies and residential blocks coming up in the area. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) formed 47 “land-losers cooperatives” to allot work to the farmers who lost their land to these projects. However, the cooperatives eventually disappeared and “syndicates” controlled by gangsters, surfaced.
The farmers and the fishermen who lost land became suppliers of construction material. A police report reveals that at least 50 people lost their lives resisting land acquisition in the satellite townships developed for the upper-income group. It is really interesting to note that Rajarhat is the first place in State from where Mamata led her first protest against land acquisition in early 2000s, even before Singur. This area is a stronghold of Trinamool Congress.
However ,with the High Court taking a serious view of the syndicate operation and assembly elections approaching fast, the syndicate operators have been lying low. Realising that a hostile situation was taking shape against the party only a couple of days back, Trinamool leader Mukul Roy conveyed Mamata Banerjee’s message to party leaders in North 24-Parganas that anyone found involved in running syndicates supplying construction material would be expelled. Just a week ahead of this development, Swapan Mandal, a Trinamool leader allegedly involved in running a syndicate in Rajarhat, was murdered. Taking advantage of the situation some big houses have now started procuring construction materials independently.