New SEC Upadhyay has task cut out for him

MIRA PANDE COMPLETES HER TENURE AS BENGAL STATE ELECTION COMMISSIONER ON 21 JULY

By bappaditya paul

Mamata Banerjee’s bete noir Mira Pande will complete her tenure as State Election Commissioner on 21 July and Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay, a retired WBCS officer, will fill in her shoes the next day.

Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay

Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay

But notwithstanding the “friendly to government” tag that some sections have awarded to Mr Upadhyay, it will be difficult for the new SEC to back out from the legal battle that Mrs Pande is leaving behind over holding elections to 17 civic bodies in the state.

Legal and civic poll experts say that under Article 243U of the Constitution, it is the SEC’s obligation to hold timely elections to civic bodies. “It is immaterial who is in office: the poll panel can not shy away from this Constitutional obligation. It shall have to exploit every Constitutional avenue to conduct the polls,” said a retired High Court judge unwilling to be named.

Article 243U, clause (1) reads: “Every Municipality, unless sooner dissolved under any law for the time being in force, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting and no longer.” Clause (3), sub clause (a) further makes it clear that polling to a civic body shall be held: “before the expiry of its duration specified in clause (1).

West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande

West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande

The five year term of 17 civic bodies in the state ~ Mal, Kaliaganj, Gangarampur, Madhyamgram, Rajarhat-Gopalpur, South Dum Dum, Dum Dum, Rajpur-Sonarpur, Maheshtala, Uluberia, Dankuni, Egra, Sainthia, Asansol, Kulti, Islampur and the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad ~ is expiring between 17-31 July.

The Bengal government however, does not want the polls till next year on the excuse that it is monsoon now and some of the civic bodies in question are to be restructured. This made Mrs Pande move the Calcutta HC.

“Before moving to the High Court, we wrote the state government numerous times. The government sat on the matter till early June when it wrote back saying that the polls could not be held before the civic bodies were restructured and a favorable season sat in,” said a senior SEC official. “This reasoning is absurd as civic polls had been held in the peak summer of 2009. Also one cannot defer the polls for a prolonged period on the excuse of restructuring; restructuring can be carried out after the polls.”

Mamata Banerjee A Calcutta HC advocate, not linked to this case, pointed out that the new SEC’s options have been limited by the fact that Mira Pande meticulously followed all procedures before knocking the court.

“Mr Upadhyay can not get into a fresh negotiation with the government as the latter has shut that possibility,” he said. “The best-case scenario will be that the High Court asks both the parties to propose an amicable solution to it; this can only happen if the government blinks in favour of an early polls, at least in those civic bodies, that are not being restructured. As regards the rest, under Section 14 (4) of the West Bengal Municipal Act, 1993 the government can appoint administrators to run them till the restructuring is complete.”

Of the 17 civic bodies whose elections are due, seven feature in list of municipalities that are to be restructured or upgraded.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 20 July 2014.)

 

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Municipality upgarde to take at least a year

WB GOVT’S CLAIM TO HOLD CIVIC POLLS IN NOVEMBER IS FICTITIOUS

By bappaditya paul

Trinamul Congress government wants to postpone elections to 17 municipalities in the state till November on the pretext that it will by then upgrade seven of them into corporations. But going by the West Bengal Municipal Act 1993, the upgrade process will take at least a year, making it clear that the November deadline is fictitious. Mamata Banerjee cartoon courtesy Deccan ChorinicalSection 3 to 9 of the WB Municipal Act that deals with the formation/constitution of municipal areas in the state, lay down a procedure so elaborate that it will take 12-13 months to upgrade an existing municipality or form a new one.

The process includes issuing a notification by the Governor both in the official gazette and in newspapers, declaring the intention to create / upgrade a municipality. Following this, the common public shall have to be given three months to put forward their opinions/ objections in writing and these shall have to be disposed off in another one month.

The government will then issue a notification announcing the formation / upgrade of the civic bodies for which public opinion had been sought; another notification specifying the number of wards in each of these civic bodies will follow in close succession.

West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande

West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande

Since the government wants to set up four new municipal corporations, in the next step it shall have to draft and enact separate legislation for each of them. Such legislation, among other matters, shall mention whether the SEC or some other body is to carry out the delimitation for the new corporations.

Once that is done, the assigned body will take up the delimitation exercise, which going by conservative estimate, will take at least four months to complete.

Next comes the task of reserving seats/wards for women and SC/ST/OBC categories. The Municipal Elections Act stipulates that the draft for the reservation shall be published at least 10 weeks before the day of polls; the final reservation shall be published at least seven weeks in advance. This in effect means it will take at least three-four months to complete the reservation process and the elections can be held only after this. Nabanna in Howrah ~ Bengal's new seat of powerThe state Cabinet had on 26 May announced the decision to create four new municipal corporations by clubbing 23 municipalities and merge another 13 municipalities with three existing corporations.

Of the municipalities to be upgraded, seven municipalities feature in the list of 17 municipalities whose term end in July. These seven municipalities are ~ Asansol, Dum Dum, South Dum Dum, Madhyamgram, Maheshtala and Rajarhat-Gopalpur.

Citing the proposed upgrade, the state municipal affairs secretary wrote to the State Election Commission (SEC) on 17 June stating that instead of now, the government wants to hold elections to the 17 municipalities in November as the upgrade would be completed by then.   Calcutta High Court

The matter is now pending before the Calcutta High Court after the SEC flied a writ petition seeking intervention to hold elections to the 17 bodies before their term expires; the next hearing is fixed for 11 July.

Keeping in mind that the state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande is due to exhaust her tenure on 21 July, she will not be able to hold the elections even if the Court rules in favour of the poll panel. “She will at best be able to issue the notification and the next commissioner will complete the poll process,” said a senior SEC official.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 28 June 2014, under a different headline.)

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Kolkata squats on Metro extension projects

SIX METRO EXTENSION PROJECTS IN KOLKATA MAKE LITTLE PROGRESS DUE TO LAND HURDLE AND LACK OF COOPERATION FROM STATE & CENTRAL GOVT AGENCIES

By bappaditya paul

Mumbai threw open its first Metro route last Sunday (08 June) and other cities across India are moving fast to catch up.

But even as Metro services have spread in other cities, Kolkata is literally squatting on 102.50 km Metro extension projects that have the potential to revolutionise transport facilities in the city. Ironically, Kolkata was the first in India to get a Metro system way back in 1984; its existing north-south Metro route is 27.27 km long.

A view of the ongoing Joka-BBD Bagh Metro project near Behala.

A view of the ongoing Joka-BBD Bagh Metro project near Behala in Kolkata.

The 102.50 km Metro extension in Kolkata is spread over six projects and they were sanctioned between 2008 and 2012. But even after the lapse of so many years, the projects have made little progress due to non-availability of land and lack of cooperation from different agencies of the state and Central governments.

Going by a rough estimate, till date only 26 per cent of the work has been completed and going by the complex nature of the hurdles, none of the officials involved with the projects are willing to hazard a guess as to when they will be ready.

DUM DUM – BARANAGAR:

Length: 4.50 km.

Sanction year: 2010-11.

Estimated cost: Rs 411.06 crore.

Status: 1.93 km stretch incomplete.

Reason: 319 encroachments on railway land between Noapara and Baranagar. Owing to this, a private contractor appointed by Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) backed out last year.

Way out: RVNL now looking for a new contractor and state government’s assistance to remove the encroachments.

 

NOAPARA-AIRPORT-BARASAT:

Length: 18.13 km.

Sanction year: 2010-11.

Estimated cost: Rs 2582.55 crore.

Status: Work stalled. Two work orders issued to L&T for Airport to Barasat stretch cancelled.

Reason: 800 encroachments on railway land between Noapara and Airport and 1,884 encroachments between Airport and Barasat.

Way out: Metro Railway has written to Railway Board to truncate the route at Airport; wants state’s intervention to remove the 800 encroachments.

A stalled work site of the East-West Metro Corridor project beside Howrah station's old complex.

A stalled work site of the East-West Metro Corridor project beside Howrah station’s old complex.

JOKA-BBD BAGH-DIAMOND PARK:

Length: 18.72 km.

Sanction year: 2010-11 & 2012-13.

Estimated cost: Rs 2913.51 crore.

Status: No progress beyond the construction of 7.5 km elevated portion between Joka and Majerhat.

Reason: Union Finance Ministry yet to give permission for a 300 metre stretch that will pass through Kolkata Mint premises at New Alipore. Defence Ministry yet to grant permission for a near 5 km underground stretch between Mominpur and Maidan. State government yet to complete land acquisition for a 25-acre plot at Joka needed for Metro car-shed.

Way out: Speedy NOC from Finance and Defence Ministry; proactive steps by state government for Joka land acquisition.

 

NEW GARIA-AIRPORT VIA RAJARHAT:

Length: 32 km.

Sanction year: 2010-11

Estimated cost: Rs 4259.50 crore.

Status: Only 35 per cent piling work complete and some pillars erected on stretch between Ruby and Patuli More on E M Bypass and in New Town.

Reason: KMC wants RVNL to pay Rs 251 crore for 20,000 square feet land for two elevated stations near Pragati Maidan police station and Bartaman Building on E M Bypass. Villagers stalling work on 150 metre stretch of land near Hidco Bhavan in Rajarhat claiming that it belongs to them.

Way out: RVNL ready to pay only a token amount to KMC on the logic that Metro is a public utility service. Hidco’s intervention to end the stalemate at Hatihara.

 

BARANAGAR-DAKSHINESWAR-BARRACKPORE:

Length: 14.50 km.

Sanction year: 2010-11

Estimated cost: Rs 2069.60 crore.

Status: Work has not moved an inch on the Barrackpore route.

Reason: KMC yet to relocate two underground water pipelines (60” and 42” in diameter) that run along BT Road along the proposed Metro route. 1,250 encroachments on state government land beside BT Road along the proposed alignment.

Way out: Relocation of the water pipelines and removal of encroachments.

Kolkata Metro AC rake

 

EAST-WEST (SALT LAKE-HOWRAH) CORRIDOR:

Length: 14.67 km.

Sanction year: 2008-09

Estimated cost: Rs 2,984 crore.

Status: Around 60 per cent of the elevated stretch between Salt Lake Sector V and E M Bypass complete; underground stretch between Phoolbagan and Sealdah station complete. Work stalled between Sealdah and Howrah Maidan.

Reason: The alignment between Sealdah and Writers’ Buildings yet to be finalised; some land owners at Bowbazar have moved to High Court opposing land acquisition for the Metro route. State government yet to give KMRCL a 400 square metre piece of land on Brabourne Road (near Writers’ Buildings) for the underground tunneling work up to Howrah Maidan.

Way out: Early allotment of the plot on Brabourne Road and state’s proactive role to end the legal impasse over the Bowbazar stretch.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 15 June 2014.)

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Noapara-Barasat Metro route to truncate at airport

METRO TAKES DECISION DUE TO LAND HURDLE; SENDS MODIFIED PROPOSAL TO RAILWAY BOARD

By bappaditya paul
Kolkata Metro Railway authorities have approached the Railway Board to truncate the Noapara-Barasat Metro corridor at the city airport as the project is making little progress due to land hurdle at the Barasat-end.Indian Railways New LogoThe move comes a year after the Metro authorities foreclosed or cancelled the two work-orders that it had issued to L&T for laying a 5.7 km Metro track between the Airport and Barasat owing to encroachments on the proposed alignment. This was part of the 18.13-km Noapara-Barasat Metro corridor sanctioned in 2010-11 at an estimated cost that now stands at Rs 2,582.55-crore.

According to sources, Metro Railway has written to the Railway Board early in May with a modified plan to construct a 1.7 km underground Metro line in the airport premise, as they do not see the possibility of any headway in the project beyond the airport.

Noapara Metro Railway station, Kolkata.

Noapara Metro Railway station, Kolkata.

“In the original plan for Noapara-Barasat Metro corridor, there is the provision for a 5.6 km underground route in and around the airport. But since encroachment on railway land is not allowing progress on the full stretch, we have urged the Board to allow us to terminate the route at the airport itself, which can be achieved by constructing a 1.7 km underground track instead,” said a senior Metro Railway official. “Work on the stretch between Airport and Barasat can be taken up later if we get the land in future.”

The modified plan will necessitate augmenting the infrastructure of the Metro car-shed at Noapara to park additional rakes for running trains up to the airport. Originally, the plan was to construct a car-shed at Barasat to park and feed Metro rakes for the entire route.

“The Board is empowered to approve the modified plan as this is an already sanctioned project and there is no need to take this through the Rail Budget route. We are hoping that the Board will give us a go ahead soon,” another Metro officer said.Metro AC trainBut even if the Railway Board approves the modified plan, it will not be all clear for the near 6 km Metro route from Noapara to the airport. There are around 800 encroachers sitting on railway land along the proposed alignment near Dum Dum Cantonment and Jessop-siding.

Till now, Metro authorities have been carrying forward construction work for the elevated portion on the route where the land is encroachment-free.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 11 June 2014.)

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Bus fare status quo halts Metro Saturday train increase

By bappaditya paul

Call it an irony that Mamata Banerjee government’s refusal to hike bus fare is proving to be a double whammy for the commuters in Kolkata! Mamata BanerjeeWhile people are already in the lurch due to withdrawal of buses by private operators, Kolkata’s lifeline Metro Railway has now delayed its plan to increase trains on Saturdays till the time the state government revises the bus fare.

This is despite the fact that Metro trains are witnessing higher crowd on Saturdays, in turn making the ride into a real ordeal for commuters. With 204 trains, Metro Railway carries an average 5.10-lakh passengers on Saturdays; on weekdays it transports 5.50-lakh commuters with the number of trains being 274. This comes to around 2,500 passengers every Metro train on Saturdays as against the 2,007 persons a train on weekdays.

Kolkata Metro train that run with eight coaches are designed to carry a maximum 2,558 passengers.

Crowded Kolkata busMetro Railway authorities however are of the view that the high passenger density on Saturdays was the result of a drop in number of buses and the scenario might change once the bus fare is increased. At present, the minimum fare for both Metro and bus is Rs 5.

“A hike in bus fare is likely to have any of the two implications. First, this may prompt private operators to run more buses and in turn result in a fall in Metro passengers as people will have more option. The second scenario can be that if the bus fare becomes almost equal to that of Metro, there will be a surge in Metro commuters,” said a senior Metro Railway official. A Kolkata Metro train“This is why we have decided to delay our plans to increase trains till the time the government revises the bus fare. For a moment, we are not looking at a huge drop in Metro passengers after a bus fare hike; what we are foreseeing is that in the changed scenario there may be a higher crowd on weekdays. In that case, we shall have no other choice but to increase trains on weekdays,” the officer said.

At this point, Metro authorities are averse to increasing trains on Saturdays, as they will not be able to reduce the number of trains even if there is an increase in weekday demand later. Metro Railway has 27 rakes, which the authorities say is not sufficient to increase trains on all seven days a week.

Metro at present operates 274 trains daily from Monday to Friday, 204 trains on Saturday and 96 trains on Sunday.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 10 June 2014.)

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Body in search of a head

WEST BENGAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION FUNCTIONING WITHOUT A FULL-TIME CHAIRPERSON FOR FIVE MONTHS NOW

By bappaditya paul

The West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC) will complete five months of functioning without a full time chairperson on 5 June, and going by indications the post is unlikely to be filled up anytime soon.Human Rights collageWBHRC had carved a niche for itself under the chairpersonship of Mr Justice (retired) Asok Kumar Ganguly who stepped down on 6 January under pressure.

Highly placed sources at state secretariat Nabanna have indicated that appointing a new chairperson for the rights panel was not in the government’s priority list.

“Ever since the WBHRC chairperson post fell vacant, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has only once talked about finding a new person for the post. That was about four months ago,” the sources said.Mamata BanerjeeThey said the state government was likely to wait till December when a few judges of the Supreme Court and chief justices of some of the high courts are due to retire from service. The government considers some of them to be “suitable” for the post. “It is better if we could find a former judge who is a Bengali. If that does not happen, we must find someone who is adequately aware about Bengal,” the sources said.

The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, stipulates that chairperson of a state rights panel must be a former chief justice of a high court or a former judge of the Supreme Court, aged below 70 years.Naparajit MukherjeeFormer director general of West Bengal police Mr Naparajit Mukherjee has been functioning as the acting chairperson of WBHRC since 20 January, but the absence of a full time chairperson has turned the rights panel dormant. Mr Mukherjee had originally joined WBHRC as a non-judicial member in November 2013.

Sources said, during the tenure of Justice Ganguly, WBHRC used to receive around 100 complaints a day; this has now come down to 40. The rights panel has not conducted a single hearing under the acting chairperson till date, sources said.

The WBHRC chairperson post fell vacant on 6 January after the Bengal government compelled Justice Ganguly to step down over allegations of sexual harassment of a law intern and an alleged unauthorised tour to Pakistan.During his tenure, the rights panel had made several recommendations much to the discomfiture of the state government. Justice AK Ganguly These included a Rs 50,000 compensation order to Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra who was arrested for allegedly forwarding a cartoon that lampooned and offended  the chief minister, a Rs 2 lakh compensation order to Midnapore farmer, Shiladitya Choudhury, whom Miss Banerjee had called a “Maoist” when he tried to draw her attention to the rising price of fertilisers during a public meeting.

Justice Ganguly’s strictures in the Kamduni rape-murder case and the SFI leader Sudipto Gupta’s death in police custody had also caused huge embarrassment to the government.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 4 June 2014.)

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Green signal via fare hike

KOLKATA METRO CUTS DOWN LOSSES FIRST TIME IN RECENT YEARS

By bappaditya paul 
Thanks to the fare hike in November last year, Metro Railway for the first time in recent memory has cut down losses and has improved its operating ratio.   Kolkata Metro AC rakeIn the 2013-14 fiscal year that ended on 31 March, Metro reported an operating loss of Rs 110.84 crore. But the silver lining for Kolkata’s lifeline is that, the loss this time was Rs 14.16 crore less than the previous year; in 2012-13 the loss was Rs 125 crore.

Consequent to this, Metro Railway’s operating ratio has improved to Rs 286 from what was Rs 328 the previous year. This means, during 2013-14, Metro Railway spent Rs 286 to earn every Rs 100; this is an improvement of Rs 42.

This is a good sign as Metro has been in the red for over a decade now and the losses were mounting up year after year. In 2010-11 the operating loss was Rs 83.91 crore, in 2011-12 Rs 99.26 crore and in 2012-13 Rs 125 crore. Metro Bhavan Kolkata Sources in Metro Railway said that in 2013-14, Metro’s total work expenditure stood at Rs 255.89 crore and the gross earning was Rs 145.05 crore. As regards the quarter-to-quarter earnings, it registered a remarkable leap in passenger revenue in the third and fourth quarter, that is, between October and March.

“The Metro fare was hiked on 7 November. Consequent to this, we witnessed Rs 10.84 crore increase in passenger revenue during October to December and Rs 16.33 crore increase during January to March. This has largely helped us to cut down the losses,” said a senior official in Metro Railway.  Kolkata Metro trainIn November, the Metro fare was hiked by 25 to 85 per cent based on different distance slabs: Rs 5 for a journey up to five km, Rs 10 for 5-10 km, Rs 15 for 10-20 km, Rs 20 for 20-25 km and Rs 25 for 25-30 km. Prior to that, Metro used to charge Rs 4 up to five km, Rs 6 for 5-10 km, Rs 8 for 10-15 km, Rs 10 for 15-20 km, Rs 12 for 20-25 km and Rs 14 for 25-30 km.

In 2013-14 Metro Railway carried 19.52 crore passengers as compared to the 18.83 crore who traveled the previous year.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 28 May 2014.)

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