Give in or give up — that’s the blatant and “dangerous” message of the ‘syndicate raj’ thriving under the Mamata Banerjee government. Patronised by Trinamool Congress councillors and members and government officials, these syndicates have spread their tentacles from real estate to Durga Puja. These groups control sale of land, construction and building material and if the buyer seeks legit means, the syndicates make sure he succumbs to their demands.
An India Today TV investigation in Trinamool’s bastion revealed the shocking connivance of the party and government officials with notorious syndicates. A councillor, husband of another councillor, a TMC member, an official and a syndicate operative were caught right on camera mentioning how the whole system works, ‘protection money’ that must be coughed up and the use of pressure tactics.
“If you protest, it will lead to a bigger problem and vandalism. They are very dangerous people. Their boss is a very big leader of West Bengal. He might become an MLA. He will have everything vandalised. Lockdown or shell out Rs 10 lakh,” Soumen Banerjee, husband of Bidhannagar TMC councillor Swati Banerjee, blatantly mentions the ‘muscle power’ of syndicates when an India Today TV undercover reporter posing as a businessman approaches him regarding opening a ‘restaurant’ and asks why doesn’t the police intervene?
Banerjee was caught on camera along with a syndicate operative named Rana Basu demanding more than Rs4 lakh from the reporter. “I told you that you have to pay up only once. He (Rana) will conduct Durga Puja in some other ward, not mine. Just see to it. That’s it. Give him Rs 25,000 and close this discussion,” he says.
Tell him [the reporter] how much you want for yourself?” Basu turned to the reporter for Banerjee’s share. “You give Rs25,000 to him and pay me four (Rs4 lakh),” Banerjee promptly replies. When the reporter seeks to speak directly to Swati, Banerjee says, “What will she do? You spoke to me. That’s equally good.”
More than Rs4 lakh as extortion to start a restaurant! That is how syndicates are thriving in the state-their diktat is pay up or suffer. “They will lock everything down and demand Rs5-Rs10 lakh. The work won’t resume (if you don’t pay up),” says Banerjee hinting at the ‘law of the jungle’ in the ‘syndicate raj’.
Basu’s comment corroborates Banerjee’s statement when he mentions how he has threatened a man who started construction in his area without donating to his club. “I have come to know that roofing is being done at a construction site in my area. When I told him clearly that my club hasn’t got any donation and I will stop the construction, he started pleading and said that would consider it (the demand). Everything will be visible when I fix him up.”
The malaise is widespread with TMC worker Sushanto Das boasting how “the party is all ours. All leaders are with us”. A close aide of North Dum Dum’s TMC councillor Bidhan Biswas, a threatening Das says, “If someone buys land via others, we will cause ruckus.”
Das openly admits being a TMC member. Boasting his syndicate’s stranglehold on North Dum Dum, he says, “This is our area. We manage everything-from the chairman, councillors to building plans. You don’t have to worry about anything,” when asked if our reporter buys land via him and a third persons steps in later.
Das first introduces our reporter to his immediate boss Sujoy Das, who in turn takes our reporter to the office of Biswas, a wealthy TMC leader sporting flashy gold rings and bracelets. His room is bedecked with colourful balloons and his images with Bollywood stars.
Our reporter explains his fictitious plans to buy a plot for a restaurant and asks for guarantee of no disturbance. “There won’t be any disturbance. That’s what we are here for. You check the land papers. We’ll handle any disruption. No one will bother you. We will give whatever is required,” pat comes Biswas’ reply.
If the ‘deal’ is sealed, Sujoy ensures his share of profit by selling building material and overseeing construction. “Tell him [the reporter] that all construction work should be outsourced to us. That’s our profit. We will profit only if we supply the material.
I can get 200 in five minutes by making one phone call,” he says.
These syndicates don’t operate out of some underground dens, but brazenly with official connivance. Harendra Singh, chairman, Dum Dum Municipality, insists that our reporter buys building material from syndicates when he says he wants to reconstruct the first floor of a restaurant that was shut down.
“Local youths (syndicates) would insist that you buy building material like sand and bricks from them. There won’t be any problem. Just assign the job to them,” says Singh.
When he is asked why such syndicates are allowed in the first place, Singh shoots back. “Why should we stop them? What will they eat? You ask us to stop them. You just want to earn alone? What about that jobless man who wants to earn two paisas from you. Local men are jobless because of high population. It’s a small city and everyone is doing something. That’s why they are involved in such jobs. They have chosen this as their livelihood.”