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The landmark verdict on Singur by the Supreme Court will hit West Bengal’s economy and be cited in future agitations as industry and agriculture battle for this fast-depleting, precious resource

By Sujit Bhar in Kolkata

“…land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Gerald O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

On August 31, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark verdict, declaring as “illegal and void” the acquisition of 1,053 acres by the earlier Left Front government in West Bengal for a Tata Motors Nano car plant at Singur. The two-judge bench ordered that all the land must be given back to the farmers within 12 weeks.

The two-page order, drawn from separate judgments by the two Justices—V Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra—also said that all compensation so far handed out to the farmers who willingly gave their land shall not be recovered because they were “deprived of occupation and enjoyment of their lands for a decade”. The order said: “The landowners/cultivators who have not withdrawn the compensation are permitted to withdraw the same which is in deposit either with Land Acquisition Collector or the Court.”

The two judges differed on a few issues in their individual judgments, though the gist in the order represented several common areas. The order said: “We concur on the question of quashing the impugned acquisition proceedings and reliefs to be granted to the land owners/cultivators. The appeals are allowed, the common judgment…by the High Court of Calcutta is set aside.”

INDIVIDUAL JUDGMENTS

Justice Gowda in his individual judgment said scathingly: “The acquisition of land… was sought to be disguised as acquisition of land for ‘public purpose’ in order to circumvent compliance with the mandatory provisions of Part VII of the LA Act. This action of the State Government is grossly perverse and illegal and void ab initio in law and such an exercise of power by the state government for acquisition of lands cannot be allowed under any circumstance. If such acquisitions of lands are permitted, it would render entire Part VII of the LA Act as nugatory and redundant, as then virtually every acquisition of land in favour of a company could be justified as one for a ‘public purpose’ on the ground that the setting up of industry would generate employment and promote socioeconomic development in the state.”

The initial fight was for approximately 400 acres which belonged to the farmers who were unwilling from the beginning to part with it. However, the Supreme Court took cognisance of the entire issue.

However, Justice Mishra differed here. In his verdict, he said: “In my opinion it would remain acquisition for a public purpose as provided in Section 3(f) of the Act… Public purpose has to be adjudged in the background of the facts of the instant case and the state of West Bengal decided to make effort to establish manufacturing industries with a view to attract more private sector investment and foreign direct investment for industrialisation at par with the model adopted by other progressive states.”

On October 7, 2008, the Tatas announced they would be setting up the Nano plant in Sanand at the invitation of Narendra Modi (photo: UNI). Sanand rolled out its first Nano on June 2, 2010
On October 7, 2008, the Tatas announced they would be setting up the Nano plant in Sanand at the invitation of Narendra Modi (photo: UNI). Sanand rolled out its first Nano on June 2, 2010

He adds: “When the government wants to attract investment, create job opportunities and aims at the development of the state and secondary development, job opportunities, such acquisition is permissible for public purpose. The project at hand would have definitely served the public purpose and public purpose should be liberally construed, not whittled down…”

JOYOUS MAMATA

The final verdict was a massive political victory for the Mamata Banerjee government. Mamata said: “I am remembering those people who made sacrifices fighting for this. This is a landmark victory. Very happy with the decision. Now I can die in peace.”

With land agitations erupting around the country, this seminal judgment will now be cited often to block industrial development.  Public projects such as roads, ports, bridges and hospitals, most of which are in the exempted schedule of the Act, could still go through but with some difficulty.

In addition, this order also dealt a serious blow to the Rs 1,400-crore damages suit which Tata Motors had filed against the state for “losses” it suffered when forced out by Mamata’s land agitation in 2008. The Tatas finally decided to move out of Singur on October 3 that year. The company’s then chairman, Ratan Tata, blamed Mamata’s agitation for the pullout decision. On October 7, 2008, the Tatas announced that they would be setting up the Nano plant in Sanand, Gujarat, at the invitation of Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat.

The apex court verdict was a shot in the arm for Mamata. She said: “We will see to it that all land is returned to the farmers within the court-ordered time frame. For the tracts of land that have become unsuitable for farming, we will make them tillable again before returning them to the farmers.”

Farmers at Badarpur border on the way to join Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar to protest against the Land Acquisition Bill. Photo: UNI
Farmers at Badarpur border on the way to join Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar to protest against the Land Acquisition Bill. Photo: UNI

To this end, she ordered the use of heavy earth-moving machinery to break concrete and other material which was meant for the proposed car factory. The public works department is now mulling over whether to ask for more time to return the land as the monsoons have played a spoiler.

The initial fight was for approximately 400 acres which belonged to the farmers who were unwilling from the beginning to part with it. However, the court took cognisance of the entire issue.

CPM STATEMENT

This judgment has put the CPM in a rather unenviable position. The chief minister at the time of this land acquisition was Buddadheb Bhattacharjee. Forced into a corner, the CPM has blamed the 1894 Land Acquisition Act for the huge setback. A statement issued by the CPM politburo said: “…The acquisition process had to be undertaken under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, which was the only legal instrument available at that time. This was an Act, which did not protect the interests of farmers adequately.”

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It also said that in 2011, while reviewing the result of the West Bengal assembly polls, the party’s Central Committee acknowledged that the administrative and political mistakes in this regard proved costly. This also shows the glaring differences that developed between the state chapter of the CPM in West Bengal and its central leadership.

The judgment is likely to have a huge economic fallout. A Kolkata-based industrialist who didn’t want to be identified said there was a dire need for the proposed amendments to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act to go through expeditiously in parliament if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of Make in India has to come true. Incidentally, it took the government more than a century (2013) to amend the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

He said: “While I salute the Supreme Court for this landmark verdict in realising the dreams and aspirations and respecting the meagre possessions of the farmers of the state, extraction of political mileage from this could block further economic initiatives for years to come.”

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 65 million people in India have been displaced by dams, highways, mines and airports between 1950 and 2005. Less than a fifth has been resettled.

He added: “We must understand that big industry will need big chunks of contiguous land. You cannot expect an automobile plant or a steel plant to come up in your backyard. For that purpose, you will need a land bank, because if a private party uses all his resources and time negotiating with hundreds and thousands of landowners, he will deviate from the main purpose of setting up a major industry that could employ thousands and improve the socio-economic fabric of the entire region.”

The industrialist felt that all legal activity could have been restricted to the 400 acres of land belonging to the unwilling farmers. That would have left the rest of the land in the state’s land bank. “It is essential that West Bengal develops a good land bank to be able to attract large investment,” he said.

While the present Trinamool Congress government is against setting up of an SEZ and even stopped a major Wipro investment in the IT sector, it concurrently wants investment to flow in. But industry, like crops, needs land.

PULL OF INDUSTRY

India, among the world’s fastest growing economies, has virtually run out of land that can be easily acquired for huge manufacturing bases. To this end, many of the laws introduced in the past decade to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people have been diluted in their implementation. This, say activists, has not helped the vulnerable.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 65 million people in India have been displaced by dams, highways, mines and airports between 1950 and 2005. Less than a fifth has been resettled.

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With land agitations erupting around the country, this seminal judgment will now be cited often to block industrial development.  Public projects such as roads, ports, bridges and hospitals, most of which are in the exempted schedule of the Act, could still go through but with some difficulty. In August, two persons were killed in Jharkhand as villagers clashed with the police over loss of their homes to a power plant. Similar protests took place in Greater Noida over the UP government requisitioning land for building the Yamuna Expressway.

Industry body FICCI had suggested that the government should not interfere in private purchase and that it should allow it to happen. It said that the law in its present form takes up so much time that the land purchase neither benefits farmers nor industry.

FUTURE AMENDMENTS

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So what kind of amendments should be made to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act? Here are some suggestions from various sections of society:

  • Get the consent of farmers or the landowner. For a PPP project, consent of 70 percent of landowners is required. The government wants this consent clause diluted. The Congress has accused the BJP of keeping the interests of industry above all else. It also points out that large tracts of land that had been taken over have been kept unused for years on end, so that land prices could rise and a killing be made. This was one of the reasons why the new act was thought of, it alleges. Others say that the consent percentage should be reduced to 50 percent so that it benefits all.
  • Since January 1, 2014, when the Act became law, not a single tract of land has been acquired because of the stringent requirements. The Congress says that in the past, land acquisition took place far beyond what was necessary.
  • There has been a positive side too. As per Section 24(2) of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015, hundreds of thousands have benefited when land, unused for years, was released.
  • The social impact assessment has not been completed; it should be done quickly. There are allegations that the process (of assessment) has hardly started.
  • Land acquisition for private investment, (as was the case with Tata Motors) needs a steep 80 percent consent. This is near impossible if arable land is involved. It is suggested that this be reduced to 70 percent or less.

It is obvious that a middle path needs to be found.

Lead picture (L) Minister Firhad Hakim leads a rally in Kolkata celebrating the Supreme Court verdict. Photo: UNI

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