Return of Bengal land to farmers 'voluntary', says JSW Steel

Two days after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced the return of a parcel of land that JSW Steel had acquired directly from farmers in West Bengal, the company said that it had offered to return land voluntarily as a goodwill gesture.

In a filing with the stock exchanges this morning, the Sajjan Jindal-led company reiterated its commitment to the 35,000-crore greenfield steel plant project in West Bengal, saying that it will continue to work with the state government to find alternatives to establish raw material linkages so as to take up the project's implementation in due course.

Making its first official statement on the land return, JSW said that considering the hardship of the erstwhile landowners the company decided to give up "equivalent land out of the total project land (of 4,268 acres) ''to original owners free of cost as a gesture of goodwill through state government as per applicable laws.''

Banerjee had announced the group's decision to return land on Tuesday saying that the Jindals were doing this as a "token of respect to the farmers who had given their land.'' Banerjee had raised the pitch on land-return in June, after inaugurating another project at Salboni, once a hot-bed of ultra-left extremism in the state.

The development opened a new chapter in industry-government bonhomie. However there were reports that the industry group was cajoled into this decision by the government which too was looking for face savers in the wake of growing agitation by the land losers who were promised jobs at the new project as well as equity shares of the new company.

Industry-watchers contrasted the development with the Singur imbroglio, where the entire matter is deadlocked over the issue of returning 400 acres to farmers described as unwilling (to part with their land), by Banerjee and her party.

Banerjee said on Monday that land-return at Salboni was the first step. In the second step they will decide what to do with the balance land which is vested government land. The project is on hold now and industry experts felt that the development does not send a very positive message to prospective investors.

JSW said on Wednesday that its proposed 10-million ton green field steel plant had made good progress in land acquisition, site development and coal mine exploration but had stumbled on iron ore linkages in wake of ban on mining of the mineral.

The recent cancellation of coal block allocation further clouded the project's prospect. In view of the difficulties in bank-rolling such a project, JSW decided to put it on hold, the company said.