What was once a saucer-shaped low-lying marshland and a convergence of drainage channels from all parts of the city, is today one of the best examples of town planning in post-independence India. Bidhannagar, the brainchild of the then West Bengal chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy, has today transformed to a hub of social and economic expansion in the 60 years of its existence. The satellite township now commands one of the highest land prices in these parts of the country.
But how many are aware that the land to build Bidhannagar, more popularly known as Salt Lake City, was acquired by the state government at a token price of just ₹1? Strange though it may sound it’s a fact nonetheless, as revealed by veteran journalist Sukharanjan Dasgupta, himself a resident of the township.
The days leading up to and immediately after India’s independence were turbulent times for the country. The subcontinent had just been partitioned and refugees from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) were entering the country in hordes. West Bengal was staring at an imminent collapse of civic infrastructure. The burgeoning population called for more housing facilities and Roy was faced with one of the biggest challenges in his career as a chief minister.
Roy called his trusted aide Prafulla Chandra Sen to his office one day and expressed the pressing need to build a satellite township around Kolkata (then Calcutta). The wetlands on the eastern fringes of city have to be filled up for this purpose, he told Sen.
But how could that be possible, questioned Sen. The entire area was owned by Hem Chandra Naskar, the irrigation minister in Roy’s cabinet. Roy, in fact, was quite junior to Naskar who was much revered in the political fraternity. The chief minister, like many others, never had the guts to speak eye to eye with him.
I don’t know how, said the chief minister. You are in good terms with him. Explain to him the situation and get the job done, he said.
It was an insurmountable task for Sen. He called Naskar several times over the intercom at his chamber at the Writers Buildings. The minister had still not arrived then. When he did, Sen almost parcelled him off to the chief minister’s chamber, saying on the way that Roy had some urgent matter to discuss.
Seated at the chief minister’s office, Sen briefed the plan to the veteran politician. It’s impossible, responded Naskar. The wetlands and the fisheries there, are my source of income, he said. What will I earn if I give up all that to the state, he asked.
It was now the turn of the chief minister to pitch in. Sir, he said, you already have enough wealth and could well do away with the wetlands. But we have to resolve the housing crisis. There’s no other option, he said, but to acquire your salt lakes.
We are of course not asking you to give up everything for free, Roy went on. But as you are aware, the state coffers are empty because of the refugee problem and we will pay you a token sum of ₹1 for reclaiming the land, the chief minister said.
Roy, the clever politician that he was, already had his homework ready. He called the chief secretary to his office, who showed Naskar the map of the proposed township and got his signature on the land transfer papers, all for ₹1. The entire process was completed even before a stunned Naskar could react. Roy, Sen, and the chief secretary exchanged satisfied glances having got the irrigation minister’s signature on the deed.
The West Bengal government gazettee notification to acquire 8,760.50 acres of the eastern Kolkata wetlands was published on 18 May 1955. The basic area included the mauzas of Nayabad, Karimpur, Hadia, Jagatipota, Pargachhia, Panchpota, Mukundapur and Tentulbari. All these areas were owned by Naskar. The global tender to reclaim the saltwater lakes was floated in 1959 and was bagged by Invest Import Company of erstwhile Yugoslavia.
Salt Lake City was officially born on 16 April 1962. It was later renamed Bidhannagar to honour Bidhan Chandra Roy.
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