West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose has constituted a team of experts to conduct a study of the lands in Sandeshkhali that were illegally grabbed from villagers and turned into fish farms, and suggest ways to utilise them, an official in the Raj Bhavan said.

Experts in the field have told PTI that the topsoil of the farmlands allegedly snatched by suspended TMC leader Shajahan Sheikh and now returned to the original owners have become unfit for agriculture due to the draining of saline water for fish farming, and the topsoil needs to be replaced to make those lands suitable for cultivation again.

They also opined that instead of agriculture, pisciculture would be "an economically viable alternative" on these farmlands.

Sandeshkhali, a riverine island around 80 kilometres from Kolkata, has been in the news after local women alleged land-grabbing and sexual abuse by now-suspended Trinamool Congress leader Shajahan Sheikh and his men, who are involved in fish farming and trading.

Bose, during his recent visit to New Delhi, went to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and held discussions with experts on the matter.

He then constituted the committee which includes Former Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers' Welfare, SK Pattanayak, and an FAO expert to study the issue and suggest ways of land utilisation in Sandeshkhali, the official said.

"So far, over 250 plots of the snatched lands have been returned to their original owners. But vast swathes of farmlands had remained submerged under the saline water of the fish farms for more than two to three years, causing much damage to the topsoil. A layer of salt has settled down on those lands that may not be able to produce crops for at least the next five to ten years," the official said.

"We have to keep a watch on how people and the lands of Sandeshkhali fare in the short, medium and long terms. Both the people and their lands may need time to get out of the terrible spell cast on them by their oppressors. The civil society and the Government must handhold them in regaining their confidence and find their rightful places," the official added.

On the condition of the lands, Chittaranjan Kole, Former Vice Chancellor of Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, said, "The topsoil is the most fertile part of farmland and has the highest concentration of organic matter and micro-organisms that help plants to grow. In the lands of Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas district, that layer has been damaged by the saline water and needs to be replaced."

"The longer a land stays under saline water, the longer it would take to revive. The thumb rule is that if a land is under water for one year, it will take two years to recuperate," he said.

Kole said that the salt deposits on the lands need to be removed first, following which the farmlands have to be dug up at least two-three feet and then fresh earth needs to be layered on top.

"Later, salt-tolerant varieties of paddy may be cultivated but it would take a few years," he said.

Former Deputy Director General (crop) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Swapan Kumar Dutta, said that instead of farming, fishery could be a viable alternative on these lands.

Incidentally, teams comprising agriculture experts from the district and the block administration have already started visiting the farmlands and collecting samples for soil testing.

"Once we get the reports, we will be able to decide as to how much damage has been done and what could be done," a senior official of North 24 Parganas district said.

He said that they were also planning to dig up canals and ponds so that rainwater may be stored once monsoon sets in around June.

"Then, this freshwater may be used to irrigate the lands. Also, freshwater in the canals and ponds would gradually seep into the farmlands and mitigate the effect of the salt," the official added.

He maintained that some salt-tolerant paddy varieties may be cultivated depending on the salinity of the soil.

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