POLITICALLY, it is turning out to be the CPI(M) versus the rest. The BJP, the Congress and the Left parties barring the CPI(M) have gone on the warpath against a state government initiative on hawkers and illegal squatters in Calcutta. So much so that the state BJP has even declared the official endeavour to free congested city pavements from the illegal encroachment illegal.
But the Oppositions attempt to draw political mileage in this highly politicised metropolis has not exactly been a success. A bandh call by INTUC leader Subrata Mukherjee on November 27, the first day of the India-South Africa Test, failed miserably. As did the effort to politicise the issue by Congress leaders who wrote to the South African manager, former Calcuttan Bob Woolmer, urging him to stop play for a day. "This is ridiculous," Woolmer told newsmen. Over 80,000 spectators agreed as they filed into Eden Gardens, and the state Congress faction headed by President Somen Mitra dissociated itself from the anti-government campaign.
In fact, what should have been a simple issue for the administration exposed the essential negativism of political parties and trade unions in West Bengal, dictated as they are by vested interests. As state Minister for Transport Subhas Chakravarty explained: "Calcutta on an average loses four crore man-days a year due to traffic jams, accidents and attendant delays on account of the slow traffic. We want the roads free for vehicular traffic. We want hawkers (really shopkeepers who have put up illegal stalls and have been doing business for years) to clear out on their own, failing which there will be demolition." To this end, he ignored threats of a bloodbath issued by Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee and Hawkers Sangram Samiti Chief Shaktiman Ghosh and cleared 6,000 stalls.
Chakravartys carrot-and-stick policy struck a chord with the public at large. "I congratulate him for his boldness and seriousness about the need to save Calcutta after years of pussyfooting by political parties, including his own, for a few votes," said publisher Sunil Roy Choudhury.
Predictably, in view of the political support of around 100,000 hawkers in greater Calcutta, political parties condemned the drive the following day. Forward Bloc Chairman Ashok Ghosh was the loudest, personally attacking Chakravarty for "unleashing the rule of the jungle". Chief Minister Jyoti Basu retorted: "Why should Mr Ghosh live in a jungle? I have seen no signs of any tension."
Indeed, areas like Bidhan Sarani wore a new look on the morning of November 28. "I never knew that these pavements were so wide," marvelled a local resident. Added a local journalist: "Ghosh should know what he is talking about. Just ask the police about the hawkers his Forward Bloc has sponsored and supported on Esplanade and near Metro hall. Most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh wanted for criminal acts . It is difficult for couples and families to travel through these areas at night."
These sentiments are echoed by most Calcutta residents, who are aware that the bulk of the hawkers are not unemployed young men with degrees, as is being claimed. Says Dipen Biswas, a resident of Bhowanipore: "I know encroachers who are rich enough to offer Rs 4-5 lakh to stall-owners inside the Lake Market complex, now that they have to shift. Besides, these encroachers hook power illegally, pay no taxes and dump their garbage on the road. Clogged drains cannot be cleaned before monsoons because these people have shops over the manholes."
"It is not as though the state government has not responded to the needs of the poorer elements among the targeted hawkers," adds Anil Biswas, a CPI(M)Central Committee member. Chakravarty has talked of securing 900,000 sq ft of space to accommodate the nearly 100,000 hawkers, at their own expense. However, his work will be cut out if men like Ghosh of Forward Bloc have their way. Only hours after the north Calcutta demolition drive, Ghosh said Bloc supporters had resumed marking out areas to put up their mobile platforms measuring four by two ft. It is proposed that they would sell their wares moving from place to place or from one point for a few hours every day, and the corporation would clear up the garbage left behind.
Among the citys lawyers too, opinion is divided. A practising lawyer of Alipore court notes: "By resettling the hawkers, you are really rewarding encroachment and encouraging fresh encroachment. The government says it is implementing an agreement on the hawkers issue reached in 88 and will help only those hawkers who were doing their trade then. This is not feasible. You rehabilitate one, and you have 10 more putting up their stalls." And so, having carried out the evictions, the West Bengal government will have to now focus on thorny technicalitiesgiving other political parties more cause for nitpicking. n