24 October 2016
Squandering in Singur
Source: By KP Bhattacharjee: The Statesman
On 31 August, the Supreme Court struck down the Left Front government’s acquisition of land in Singur for Tata Motors. The Bench observed that the procedure was “illegal”, and asked the state government to return the 1053 acres to owners and cultivators within 12 weeks. The court also observed that the state cannot ignore the safeguards and regulations prescribed in the Land Acquisition Act. The LA Act of 1894 was replaced in 2013 with the “Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act”.
The crux of the judgment relates to the procedural flaw and lapses in the process of land acquisition in Singur. Legal and other essential formalities were ignored in the hope of attracting Tata Motors to West Bengal. Neither the state government nor the chairman of Tata Motors have divulged the terms and conditions under which the acquisition was effected. The then Chief Minister and his Industries Minister, Nirupam Sen, maintained that “these are trade secrets”. The refusal to disclose data violated the provisions of Section 42 of Part-VII of the Land Acquisition Act.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee dismissed the issue by reminding the people that the government does not require consent for acquisition. However, the government overlooked the fact that it must abide by the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act. Otherwise, the acquisition is void as directed by the Supreme Court. Chief among the procedural flaws was the government’s short shrift to the landowners who did not agree to the acquisition... and refused to part with the land. To give the dispossessed a patient hearing is an essential aspect of the land acquisition process. The land owners/farmers of 36 acres out of total 1053 acres of land did not give consent to the acquisition. Even so, their land was acquired in violation of the LA Act.
Another major issue that fuelled the Singur fire was the government’s refusal to divulge information; the silence has been interpreted as the state’s failure to value public opinion. Public access to information and the right of stakeholders to understand the process of land acquisition is critical in a democratic system to ensure transparency. In September 2006, a petition under the Right to Information Act (RTI) was filed in Calcutta High Court, pleading for a clear statement regarding the details of the acquisition, including the total area of land to be acquired, details of the compensation, the status of land-use, and so on. Such critical issues were fogbound.
Another important issue on which the Court pronounced its verdict (though the two judges differed) is related to the concept of “public purpose”; the Nano project was being set up by a private limited company. In October 2007, the Supreme Court had ruled against blanket use of the expression, ‘public purpose’, for the sake of acquiring land for public purpose and then handling it over to private entities. In 1998, the Planning Commission appointed a committee to examine the use of the terms, ‘public purpose’ and ‘public interest’. It recommended that land ostensibly for public interest should not be handed over to private entities.
In Singur, the land was acquired by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and then handed over to Tata Motors. A case was initiated against Tata Motors on whether the project could be identified as a public project. Calcutta High Court ruled that it was a public purpose project since it would provide employment to the people. But the people in general did not agree. True that a private company will theoretically provide employment, but the profit will be reaped by the company. In a public company, the profit is provided to the government or ploughed back to the company for its development. A private company, though functioning in the interests of the people, siphons off the profit; so this is an issue which calls for reflection by the legislatures and the judiciary.
It now devolves on the Government to execute the High Court order within 12 weeks from the date of the directive. But the fertility of the multicrop land will have to be restored close to a decade after structures were erected by Tata Motors. It bears recall that three crops were once cultivated in Singur. There may be yet more hurdles before the land is eventually handed over to the owners, chiefly the land records which must be updated to ensure that compensation is paid to the genuine owners. Furthermore, there is a clause in the agreement that states that if the acquisition is void, then WBIDC would have to indemnify Tata Motors. In that case, the state government will have to compensate Tata Motors. The Left Front government had acquired the land from the owners after paying them a huge compensation.
Eventually it is the state which is the loser; and it is public money that is at stake. The state government will again have to spend a fair amount to restore the land to its original condition, indeed to make it cultivable once again. A sum of Rs.1.19 billion has been spent on paying compensation, and perhaps more than this amount will be spent for another tranche of compensation. At the end of the day, it works out to a considerable loss of money for the state as well as the people. The latter must now raise its voice against the government for playing around with public money. The Singur disaster represents a colossal failure of the administration. It is the people of West Bengal who have suffered a loss.