In a reality check to State acquisition of agricultural land under emergency clause for industrial projects of private companies, the Supreme Court on Wednesday quashed the CPI (M)-led West Bengal government’s acquisition of 997 acres of agricultural land for industry captain Tata Motors’ Nano “small car” plant in Singur.
The 204-page judgment, which is a political victory for the Mamata Banerjee government, said though it is “completely understandable” for the government to acquire land to set up industrial units, the “brunt of development” should not be borne by the “weakest sections of the society, more so, poor agricultural workers who have no means of raising a voice against the action of the mighty State government.”
A Bench of Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra agreed for different reasons, in their separate judgments, to quash the acquisition process of the land and return it to thousands of short-changed landowners, farmers and cultivators, who have been fighting a prolonged legal battle for over 10 years.
The judgment questions the former CPI(M) government’s acquisition of the land over the objections raised by farmers and even proceeding to install equipment and factory machinery while the cultivators’' challenge to the acquisition was still pending in the courts.
The acquisition had seen widespread protests in the State, compelling the Tatas to shift base to Gujarat in 2008. The issue led to an electoral victory for the Mamata Banerjee government, which went on to enact the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act in 2011 to re-claim the land from the Tatas.
“In the instant case, what makes the acquisition proceedings perverse is not the fact that the lands were needed for setting up an automobile industry, which would help to generate employment as well as promote socio-economic development in the State, but that the proper procedure as laid down in the Land Acquisition Act was not followed by the State government,” Justice V. Gopala Gowda observed.
Acquisition violated the Land Act: SC
The Supreme Court which quashed the acquisition of land in Singur for the Tata Motors’ project on Wednesday and directed that it be returned to the farmers, said the law was violated by the then State government.
Justice Gowda wrote that the acquisition “for and at the instance of the company was sought to be disguised as acquisition of land for ‘public purpose’ in order to circumvent compliance with the mandatory provisions of the Land Acquisition 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,” Justice Gowda held.
In his separate judgment, Justice Mishra differed with Justice Gowda on whether the acquisition was for a “public purpose” or not.
He said the State’s policy to establish a small car industry would have “ultimately benefited the people and the very purpose of industrialisation.” The factory would have opened up job opportunities in the State and attracted investment. Justice Mishra concluded the acquisition did indeed qualify to be for a public purpose.
Both judges again disagreed on the issue of notices.Justice Gowda said prior individual notice should have been issued. But Justice Mishra said a gazette notice was enough.
But the two judges agreed that the State’s inquiry process into the acquisition demand was a “farce.”
The Bench said the State employed the emergency clause without even bothering to give the farmers a “decent opportunity to raise their complaints.”
Singur land acquisition: A timeline
May 2006: Tata Motors announces Nano car plant at Singur in West Bengal.
July 2006: Mamata Banerjee opposes the plant on fertile land.
December 2006: Protests against the acquisition begins.
January 21, 2007: Tata Motors starts construction of Nano car plant in West Bengal.
January 18, 2008: Calcutta High Court upholds Singur land acquisition, following which farmers and NGO moved the Supreme Court challenging the HC order.
August 24, 2008: Mamata Banerjee starts indefinite dharna at Singur outside the car plant.
September 2, 2008: Tata Motors >suspends work on Nano Plant at Singur.
September 3, 2008: Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi plays mediator; CPI(M)-led Left Front government and Trinamool agree to hold discussions.
September 5, 2008: West Bengal government and Trinamool start negotiations.
September 7, 2008: Talks break down.
October 3, 2008: Tata Motors decides to move out of Singur. Read: >We cannot run a plant with police protection, says Tata
October 7, 2008: Tata Motors announces >new Nano Plant at Sanand in Gujarat.
May 20, 2011: Mamata Banerjee >sworn in as Chief Minister of West Bengal, announces first Cabinet decision to return 400 acres of land to unwilling Singur farmers.
June 14, 2011: Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011 >passed in West Bengal Assembly.
June 22, 2011: Tata Motors moves Calcutta High Court challenging the Bill.
September 28, 2011: Calcutta High Court single bench upholds the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011.
June 22, 2012: A division bench of Calcutta High Court >strikes down the Bill on an appeal by Tata Motors.
August 31, 2016: Supreme Court >sets aside January 18, 2008 order of Calcutta High Court , allows appeals filed by some farmers and NGOs