Calling it “grossly perverse and illegal,” the Supreme Court Wednesday quashed the decision of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya-led CPM government in 2006 to acquire 1,000 acres in Singur for allotting it to Tata Motors to set up its Nano car factory.
The acquisition had become the CPM government’s touchstone for a dramatic shift in policy to attract investment. It set off a protracted agitation by farmers and the then Opposition Trinamool Congress which forced the project to leave the state for Gujarat.
A bench of Justices V Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra agreed with each other to set aside the acquisition proceeding but gave different reasons to maintain that the entire acquisition was vitiated by non-compliance with provisions of the Land Acquisition Act.
Both judges also held unanimously that possession of the land shall be given back to the landowners or cultivators within 12 weeks, and added that compensation already paid to them on account of the acquisition shall not be recovered since “they have been deprived of the occupation and enjoyment of their lands for the last ten years”.
WATCH VIDEO: Singur Land Verdict Decoded
Further, those landowners who have not received the compensation, the court said, are permitted to withdraw it from the office of the Land Acquisition Collector without any prejudice to their rights.
The verdict is a shot in the arm for current West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress as they had spearheaded the protest against the CPM’s decision to acquire the land for Tata Motors Ltd.
After the TMC government had come to power, it changed its stance in the apex court and argued against the government’s own decision to acquire land in Singur, citing various irregularities. Tata Motors, defending the acquisition, contended that a state government could not be allowed by the court to change its stand only because a different political party has taken the helm. But the bench ruled that “a stand taken by the state government can be changed subsequently if there is material on record to show that the earlier action of the acquisition of lands by the State Government was illegal or suffers from legal malafides or colourable exercise of power.”
Jubilant with the final outcome, Mamata said in Kolkata: “The Supreme Court judgment on Singur is a landmark victory. We have waited 10 years for this judgment. From the beginning, we had been telling that the method of the acquisition was unethical and land was taken away forcibly from the farmers.”
Tata Motors also reacted by saying: “This 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 the Singur Act of 2011 is yet to be heard by Supreme Court. We will study today’s judgment in detail before commenting further on the same.”
In the wake of the relentless protests, Tata had moved out of Singur and set up its Nano plant in Gujarat’s Sanand.
Justice Gowda and Justice Misra wrote separate judgments and concurred with each other that in eventuality the acquisition had to be quashed due to severe violations of the Act but they differed on the point whether the acquisition could be said to be for “public purpose” or not.
Justice Gowda said that the land acquisition for and, at the instance of, Tata was sought to be disguised as acquisition of land for “public purpose” in order to circumvent compliance with the mandatory provisions of the law.
“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. If such acquisitions of lands are permitted, it would render entire Act nugatory and redundant, as then virtually every acquisition of land in favour of a company could be justified as one for a ‘public purpose’ on the ground that the setting up of industry would generate employment and promote socio economic development in the State,” he said.
However, Justice Mishra held the acquisition to be valid so far as it was taken from the landowners for the “public purpose” of setting up an industrial unit and providing employment.
“Acquisition of land for establishing such an industry would ultimately benefit the people and the very purpose of industrialization, generating job opportunities hence it would be open to the State Government to invoke the provisions of Part II of the Act. When Government wants to attract the investment, create job opportunities and aims at the development of the State and secondary development, job opportunities, such acquisition is permissible for public purpose,” he held.
Justice Mishra underscored that the test provided for under the Act as well in precedents of the Supreme Court was whether the compensation was paid by a company or a corporation which is a public body. In this case, he noted, since the compensation to the landowners was sought to paid out of the public exchequer, it was a valid acquisition and “cannot be said to be acquisition under guise of public purpose.”
Justice Gowda and Justice Mishra, however, reached the same conclusion by ruling that the inquiry held to pick up the chunk of land was a “farce and an eyewash” since the cabinet had already taken a decision to acquire the land in Singur at the instance of the company. Both the judges said that there was no application of mind nor was fairness in complying with the mandate of the law, especially “when the brunt of this ‘development’ is 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.”