Singur imbroglio

Print edition : July 15, 2011

Mamata Banerjee with farmers after the Singur Bill was passed in the State Assembly in Kolkata on June 14. - PTI

West Bengal: Mamata Banerjee moves closer to keeping her promise to return to unwilling' farmers the land given to Tata Motors.

WITH the passage of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee got one step closer to keeping the promise made to the people of Singur that she would reclaim the land allocated to Tata Motors and return it to unwilling farmers (that is, those who did not accept, in protest, the compensation for the land seized from them). Returning the land acquired forcibly from the farmers was one of the main planks of the Trinamool Congress' campaign programme. The Singur agitation brought a political turnaround for the party and its leader Mamata Banerjee five years ago. The Singur Bill, the first major political initiative from the Trinamool Congress government, came in less than a month since its formation in May.

Governor M.K. Narayanan gave his assent to the Bill on June 20, making it an Act. Tata Motors, to whom the land had been allotted by the Left Front government to set up its small-car (Nano) factory, moved the Calcutta High Court challenging the legality of the Trinamool government's decision to take repossession of the land.

It was clearly stated in the Bill that the government sought to provide for taking over of the land covered by the lease to Tata Motors Limited for the sole purpose of small-car manufacturing project with a view to returning such portion of the land to the unwilling owners thereof, who have not accepted compensation and to utilise the balance portion in public interest and for the benefit of the state. However, certain key legal issues, pointed out by the opposition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), still remain unaddressed. The Bill was passed by voice vote on June 14.

Singur in Hooghly district caught the attention of the media the world over when a prolonged and violent agitation led by Mamata Banerjee, on behalf of a group of unwilling' land losers, forced the automobile maker out of the State in 2008 and to shift the car project to Sanand in Gujarat. Of the 13,000 farmers whose lands, totalling 997.11 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare), were acquired for the project, only around 2,200 were unwilling land losers. They owned about 400 acres and refused to collect the compensation cheques.

The opposition made its reservations about certain aspects of the Bill clear and staged a walkout during the presentation of the Bill in the Assembly. Initially we believed that there would be a State amendment to the 1894 Act (Land Acquisition Act), but suddenly we were presented with this Bill, and the session was advanced to get it hurriedly passed, bypassing all conventions, rules and procedures. This was a stand-alone provision to bypass the 1894 Act, which is an unconstitutional thing to do. The legislation is also inconsistent with Article 14 and Article 300 (a) of the Indian Constitution, the Transfer of Property Act and the Contract Act, and may ultimately be declared ultra vires if taken to court, Leader of the Opposition Surya Kanta Mishra of the CPI(M) told Frontline. He felt that such haste would inevitably lead to unnecessary litigation and would be counter-productive.

The opposition also does not accept the argument that the legislation is specific only to the 997.11 acres of land that comprises the Tata Motors' factory site in Singur and does not have any bearing on the 1894 Act. After all, the land in question has been acquired through the Land Acquisition Act, and, according to Supreme Court rulings, there is no scope for such land to be returned to the erstwhile owners in this manner. So it is inconsistent with the provisions of another Act of Parliament, Mishra observed.

Residents of the surrounding villages enter the project site of Tata Motors in Singur on June 22.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

According to him, the assent of the President of India is required for this Bill as it touches upon the Land Acquisition Act, a Central law. However, the eminent lawyer Debanjan Mandal, partner of Fox & Mandal, says this argument may not hold good. The object of the Land Acquisition Act is to acquire land. The LA Act has run its course as far as the Singur land is concerned. This Act takes off from where the LA Act finishes. Both are stand-alone pieces of legislation, he told Frontline.

Singur has played an important role in Mamata Banerjee's political career. It was from there that in 2006 she resurrected her fading career by launching the anti-land acquisition agitation, an act that enabled her to win over the rural votes in West Bengal which until then were firmly in the grasp of the Left Front.

While the passing of the legislation can be regarded as a victory for the unwilling land losers who have stood by Mamata in three successive elections and faced enormous hardships with neither land to cultivate nor compensation money (which they had rejected) to fall back on, farmers who had willingly given away their land in the hope of securing jobs (in the car plant) and ensuring a better future are left with a bitter pill to swallow.

They got what they wanted. But what about us? We gave our land willingly in the hope that the region will get industrialised and our children will get employment in the factory. The investments that we made with the compensation money have also gone down the drain, as the plans for starting the car plant have been abandoned. For the sake of a few, many are suffering, a villager, who was compensated for the land acquired, lamented.

The opposition feels the State government should reclaim all the land that was acquired for the project and return it to all the farmers involved, not just the unwilling ones. One of the main points we have raised is that it must be ensured that no discrimination takes place between the so-called willing' and unwilling' farmers, as per Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the law, Mishra said.

The opposition has also pointed out that the character of the land has changed since it was acquired and that the Bill does not mention that in future the land must be used for agricultural purposes only.

Opposition leader Surya Kanta Mishra (centre) along with other MLAs stages a walkout before the passage of the Singur Bill.-

Although the Left has made it clear that it morally supports the State government's decision to return the land, it has not deviated from its original stance on Singur. We sought a mandate that there will be industry in Singur. If we had returned to power, we would have tried again to set up an industry there. But now that the mandate has gone in their [Trinamool's] favour and they are committed to returning 400 acres of land to the unwilling' farmers, there should be no discrimination among farmers and proper procedure as per law should be followed, Mishra said.

TATA MOTORS' RESPONSE

Right from the time the legislative process for the Act began, Tata Motors has taken exception to some of the points made in the Bill with reference to it. The Bill mentioned non-commissioning and abandoning of the small-car project by the Tatas and stated: No employment generation and socio-economic development has taken place and people in and around the area have not benefited in any manner, whatsoever Tata Motors said in a statement to the media that the operations of setting up and commissioning of the plant were conducted under very difficult conditions amidst violence, disruption of activities, damage to property, threats to personnel and, there being no guarantee of a safe and peaceful environment, [the company] had to reluctantly close operations on October 3, 2008, and eventually move out.

It further stated that had the project been allowed to become operational, the plant would have initially directly employed 2,000 persons, and in a cascading manner created employment in excess of 10,000 jobs amongst the vendors and service providers in the vicinity of the plant, as can be seen at the new location of the project. The company also claimed that it had invested around Rs.1,800 crore in establishing the plant and a further Rs.440 crore for constructing buildings, sheds and other infrastructure. Moreover, the vendors had invested around Rs.171 crore.

On the night of June 21, the day after the Governor gave his assent to the Bill, the government declared that it had taken possession of the land, and the district administration pasted a notice at around 10 p.m. on the main gate of the factory site asking it to forthwith restore vacant possession of land in favour of district magistrate Hooghly, prompting Tata Motors and a large number of vendors to move the Calcutta High Court the next morning. Tata Motors' lawyers challenged the constitutional validity of the State Act and prayed that a stay order be given to maintain status quo as far as the Singur land was concerned and a Special Officer be appointed by the court to see that its direction was carried out until the disposal of the case.

Although Mamata Banerjee had made it clear that returning the land to the unwilling farmers would be her first priority as Chief Minister, her haste in implementing the new Act might in fact cause further delay in the farmers getting back the land. According to political sources, a host of willing land losers, too, have decided to move the court. It is unlikely that there will be a speedy resolution to the Singur issue, as one can be almost sure that the matter will ultimately move to the Supreme Court, said a political source.

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