Land acquisition

Farmers’ victory

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Celebrations in Singur on August 31. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a press conference on August 31, after news of the verdict was out. Photo: PTI

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the land acquired in Singur for the Nano car project must be returned to farmers has come as a huge victory for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and a major setback for the Left in West Bengal.

AFTER 10 long years, smiles returned to the faces of the farmers of Singur in West Bengal’s Hooghly district whose land was forcibly acquired by the then Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government for the proposed Tata Motors Small Car Project. In a historic verdict on August 31, the Supreme Court of India ordered that the 1,000-odd acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land acquired in Singur be returned to the farmers within 12 weeks. It also declared that the entire acquisition process was illegal.

Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra, who constituted the bench, agreed that the land acquisition process should be quashed and the land returned to the farmers, but they differed on the reasons for their decisions in separate judgments. Justice Gowda did not think that the land acquired by the State government was for a “public purpose” at all; in his opinion it was designed to favour a private company, that is, the Tatas. Justice Mishra differed on this particular point but was in complete agreement with Justice Gowda on the other important issues that infringed upon the rights of the landowners of Singur and rendered the land acquisition process null and void.

Procedural lapses were the main reasons for the judges’ decision to quash the acquisition process. Both the judges agreed that the Land Acquisition Collector had not conducted an inquiry, which he was legally required to do, nor had he assigned reasons for rejecting the objections raised by the landowners.

“The inquiry held under section 5A is a farce and an eyewash. Neither the Collector nor State government considered the matter with objectivity as mandated. Inquiry has not been done with open mind with requisite fairness. They were clearly influenced by decision of Cabinet. Entire acquisition stands vitiated in the facts and circumstances of the case,” wrote Justice Mishra.

“The report of the Collector is not a valid report in the eyes of law. The State government has mechanically accepted the same without application of mind independently before issuing notification under Section 6 of the L.A. Act declaring that the lands are required for establishment of automobile industry by TML (Tata Motors Ltd),” said Justice Gowda.

As to whether the decision of the Land Acquisition Collector was based on the decision of the State government taken prior to the notification issued under the Land Acquisition Act, both the judges ruled against the then Left Front government.

The court said that those farmers who had accepted compensation during the time of land acquisition would not have to return the amount as they had been deprived of the use of the land for the last 10 years. Those who had refused payment would have to be given compensation.

Singur, a tiny block in Hooghly district, became the focus of international attention when a prolonged agitation by farmers unwilling to give up their land for the establishment of the small car factory forced Tata Motors to relocate its Nano car project to Gujarat. The project, which was being hailed as one that would help in investment-starved West Bengal’s industrial revival, found itself facing stiff opposition right from its inception in 2006. Of the 13,000 farmers who were affected by the project, 2,200 had refused to accept compensation and, under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, launched a long, violent agitation for the return of their land (around 400 acres). The brutal murder of 16-year-old Tapasi Malik, allegedly by CPI(M) activists in December 2006, provided the spark to the movement. Tapasi Malik was an active member of the Trinamool-led Krishi Jami Jiban Jibika Rakshya (Protection of Farmland, Life and Livelihood) Committee, which was protesting against land acquisition in Singur. In October 2008, the Tatas shifted the project out to Sanand in Gujarat.

The verdict is likely to have a significant impact on West Bengal’s political future. Singur is not just a long-drawn-out court case. It has, in fact, become a symbol of resistance against forcible land acquisition and it acted as a catalyst for political change in the State. The agitation paved the way for the defeat of the 34-year-old Left Front government, brought back Mamata Banerjee from political wilderness and played a key role in her electoral success in 2011. While the departure of the Tatas was a terrible blow to the prospects of West Bengal’s industrial resurgence, Mamata Banerjee’s movement served to reassure farmers of the State that under her leadership their land would be safe from forcible acquisition for industrial purposes. This image of the Trinamool leader as a protector of the poor man’s land has been an important reason for her repeated electoral victories since 2009.

Less than a month after forming the government in May 2011, she framed the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011, by which the “unwilling” farmers would be returned their land. This was a promise she had made to the people of the region before she became the Chief Minister. However, the joy of the farmers of Singur proved to be short-lived as legal hurdles came in the way of the land being returned.

In 2008, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court upheld the land acquisition proceedings and affirmed that the land was acquired for the “public purpose of employment-generation and socio-economic development of the region” and not in the interest of conferring benefits on any private company. The tide turned in September 2011 when a single bench of the Calcutta High Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, which was challenged by Tata Motors. The following year, it was Mamata Banerjee who suffered a setback when a Division Bench of the High Court ruled that the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act was “unconstitutional and void”. Things began to look up again for her in July 2013 when the Supreme Court, in an oral observation, stated: “The land was acquired for setting up a car manufacturing plant at Singur. You have already moved out. Now you cannot say you still have interest in the land in question. The land should go back to the farmers.”

Relief for Mamata

All through these years, the farmers of Singur held on grimly to their resolve, even though their hope of ever getting their land back was fading with every passing year. As despair stalked the region, the patience of the “unwilling” farmers began to grow thin. They were left with neither land nor monetary compensation. The State government provided them with relief by way of a meagre stipend and subsidised foodgrain, but that was hardly enough. What had brought Mamata Banerjee to power was beginning to look like a major chink in her political armour. The opposition blamed her for the plight of the farmers in Singur and accused her of deliberately bringing about their doom for immediate political gains. She herself stopped going to Singur. In fact, she did not go there to campaign for the Assembly elections this year.

Nevertheless, the people of Singur remained loyal in their support and once again voted for the Trinamool. Even in victory, her unkept promise in Singur remained a thorn in her side. The Supreme Court verdict, therefore, is not only a major moral victory for her but also a huge relief.

“Despite electoral victories I had only one job left—to return the land to the farmers of Singur. Now I can die in peace,” she said soon after the verdict was announced.

Meanwhile, Singur erupted in celebration. Until the verdict was made public, the place wore a deserted look, with most people staying indoors glued to news channels on their television sets. As soon as the Supreme Court order was announced, there was celebration on the streets of Singur. People came out carrying pictures of Mamata Banerjee and smeared each other with green powder (green is the colour associated with her party) as the triumphant sound of conch shells rent the air. Mahadeb Das, one of the farmers who had unwillingly parted with his land and was at the forefront of the movement for the return of the land, told Frontline: “This [verdict] has told us that there is justice in this country and truth does emerge victorious. At one point we had started thinking that maybe money will buy everything, but this verdict told us that justice cannot be bought.

“In the last 10 years, many people who took part in the Singur movement died waiting for this judgment. For those of us still alive, this is a time for great joy.” He was dismissive of the fear that the land in Singur, following extensive construction work at the plant site, will no longer be suitable for farming—a fear that even some of the old farmers of the region have voiced. “It will not be easy. The concrete will be removed and we will make the land cultivable again,” said Mahadeb Das.

Setback for CPI(M)

If the verdict has made Mamata Banerjee’s political position in the State even stronger, it has served to further weaken the CPI(M), which has been reeling from a succession of electoral disasters, the latest being the 2016 Assembly elections, in which the Left Front, which allied itself with the Congress, could win only 32 out of 294 seats. (The Trinamool won 211.) The cruellest blow for the Left would be if the verdict further alienates the party from the rural masses, who were once its main political support-base.

With the panchayat elections just about a year and a half away, the Left will find it difficult to live down the Supreme Court judgment. According to a senior CPI(M) leader, the order has already severely demoralised cadres and party workers, as was evident in the lacklustre performance in enforcing the general strike called by central trade unions on September 2. “Even on the morning of August 31, before the verdict was out, our workers were motivated and determined to hit the streets to make the strike a success. In the evening they were completely disheartened,” the CPI(M) leader told Frontline. According to him, the party leadership ought to have taken the initiative in returning the land to the farmers in 2013 after The Right to Fair Compensation & Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act was adopted by Parliament.

In its statement on the Supreme Court verdict, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said: “The Supreme Court has struck down the 997 acres of land acquired in Singur meant for the Tata car project. The then Left Front government had intended through this project to develop industry and thereby create jobs in the State. However, 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 the farmers adequately. On land acquisition, the CPI(M) had earlier acknowledged in its Central Committee review report of the 2011 Assembly elections that ‘the administrative and political mistakes in this regard proved costly’.”

Tata Motors’ response

Tata Motors’ response was a measured one. “The case in which the judgment was delivered today related to the acquisition of land by the State government before it was leased to Tata Motors. Our case relating to Singur Act of 2011 is yet to be heard by the Supreme Court. We will study today’s judgment in detail before commenting further on the same,” the Tata Motors spokesperson said in a written statement.

The verdict will have far-reaching consequences for land acquisition proceedings everywhere in the country and will call for much greater circumspection on the part of State governments. Justice Gowda clearly stated in his judgment: “Land Acquisition Act is an expropriatory legislation, and so it must be strictly construed. Compliance with the provisions of the L.A. Act cannot be treated as an empty formality by the State government, as that would be akin to handing over the ‘eminent domain’ power of state to the executive which cannot be permitted in a democratic country governed by rule of law.”

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