TMC councillor’s arrest for blackmail blows lid of organised racket

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Kolkata: The arrest of Trinamool Congress (TMC) councillor Anindya Chattopadhyay of Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation for alleged extortion has turned the spotlight on how syndicates run by politicians operate with impunity across West Bengal’s townships.

The political and administrative circles are abuzz with speculation that the councillor’s arrest was triggered by a telephone conversation between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The former is said to have referred to the fact that a resident known to her was being asked to pay huge sum for constructing a house in the city’s affluent Salt Lake area.

While the police promptly acted in the case and arrested the councillor of Ward 41, there are several such cases were hapless citizens are at the mercy of the syndicates. In West Bengal, the term “syndicate” is a euphemism for extortionists in the garb of suppliers operating in the real estate and housing sector, largely controlled by politicians.

Consider the case of elderly Yamuna Mondal, who owns a plot in Salt Lake’s BD block. She wanted to have a railing erected in front of House number 386 in BD block and carry out some repairs. Gautam Chakraborty, who takes care of the house, said Mr Chattopadhyay had asked for a sum of Rs 20 lakh.

Now that the councillor is behind bars, a number of people have come forward to complain. A person who owns a hair-cutting salon in the ward said the councillor had demanded Rs 2 lakh from him. In areas of Bidhannagar, locals allege that even footpaths have been sold to vendors and pedestrians made to walk on the roads.

On Thursday, two accomplices of the Councillor were detained and questioned by the police.

A few kilometres east of the area, in the most sought-after township of the State, Action Area I of Newtown in a five cottah land, a group of citizens who have registered a cooperative have been unable to build a four-storeyed building thanks to the stranglehold of the syndicates.

“At the beginning of 2015 when we decided to start construction, we approached the syndicate. We tried to buy peace with them. The local guy who runs the syndicate said he would decide on the rate [the extortion amount] based on the measurement,” one of the members of the cooperative said.

The cooperative was also told that they would have to engage a labour contractor from the syndicate and also appoint a security guard approved by them, he added. The members of the cooperative had to drop the plan to develop the construction on their own; they have now employed an engineer who apparently is in good terms with local syndicate to develop the property.

Recently Justice Joymalya Bagchi of the Calcutta High Court directed the State’s Criminal Investigation Department to investigate allegations against a Trinamool Congress leader from Bhangar in the South 24 Parganas of extorting money from the owners of an under construction project. Lal Babu Mollah, another resident of the Bhangar in the district has lodged a complaint with an audio clip where he is allegedly being asked for money.

The issue of syndicates had featured in the media ahead of the Assembly polls. Mayor of Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation and MLA Sabyasachi Dutta had admitted that syndicates were flourishing and even paying for his election campaign.

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