The >Supreme Court’s verdict on the Singur land acquisition issue is a re-statement of first principles relating to the limitations of ‘eminent domain’. By quashing the entire land acquisition process done by the erstwhile Left Front government in West Bengal, the court has reiterated that the term ‘public purpose’ cannot be arbitrarily invoked to acquire land and hand it over to a private party. One of the two judges has categorically held that there was no ‘public purpose’ in the land acquisition as it was solely for the benefit of Tata Motors. The other judge has conceded that given the government’s policy of industrialisation and the potential for employment generation, the acquisition was indeed for a public purpose. But he also ruled that the failure to hold a proper inquiry into objections from the public, and the fact that the State Cabinet had decided to acquire land for the project even before the acquisition was notified as per law, rendered the entire process void. The ruling is undoubtedly a political victory for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who took up the cause of those whose lands were taken away in Singur, making it a key election issue of the pivotal Assembly election of 2011, when she wrested power from the long-serving Left Front. With the farmers set to get back their land, and the court allowing them to keep the compensation they had earlier received or claim it now if they are yet to get it, this allows her to score points afresh over the CPI(M).
The judgment does not lay down any new law. The dispute over whether the Singur land was acquired for a ‘public purpose’ or not is largely academic, now that the outdated Land Acquisition Act, 1894, has been repealed and replaced by legislation that aims at transparency in acquisition and makes fair compensation and resettlement a statutory right of those who lose their land. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act sets out the categories of projects that would fall under public purpose, and allows acquisition for private companies subject to provisions related to consent, compensation and rehabilitation. There may be some apprehension that the judgment will deter fresh investment by the private sector, inasmuch as it may preclude land acquisition for major projects. However, courts have by and large interpreted ‘public purpose’ liberally, often allowing the government’s view to prevail. The lesson from Singur is that thoughtless and fast-tracked acquisition, often to the detriment of due process and the interests of those deprived of land and livelihood, is the real issue — and not promotion of industrialisation.