Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2012-07-13 00:00:00 Published on Jul 13, 2012
While Mamata Banerjee tries to avoid being branded as an anti-industry and inflexible politician, her best ally could be the pending central land acquisition bill, which thanks largely to Mamata Banerjee, is in comatose since 2007.
Will Singur verdict brighten the prospect of Land Bill?
The Calcutta High Court recently struck down the 2011 Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, giving a major blow to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led government in West Bengal. At a personal level, the judgment comes as a major political setback for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who to a large extent piggybacked on the Singur land stir to power. Though the judgment is not the final one and will inevitably be challenged by the state government in the Supreme Court, it has serious implications for the TMC led coalition government and importantly for the ’comatose’ land acquisition bill pending with the Union Government since 2007.

What triggered Singur stir?

Singur, a small town 32 km from the Kolkata city, suddenly became the centre of global attention when the Tata Motors in 2006 chose this relatively unknown location to roll out its much talked about small car ’Nano’. Given the fact that several states did their best to woo Tatas to set up its Nano factory, the small car project was a prized catch for then Chief Minister Budhadeb Bhattacharjee of the CPI-M, who was desperately trying to erase the anti-industry image of the state. Besides, in the background of post-2006 election verdict which gave the Bhattacharjee government a landslide majority, his government went for a series of hasty land acquisitions which later proved to be his undoing. Similar as in Nandigram, the Left Front government hastily acquired land, that are fertile and multi-crop, using the antiquated 1894 land law for ’public purpose’. The government acquired 1200 acres of land, including 997 acres from 13000 ’unwilling’ farmers and leased it to the Tata Motors to set up the Nano plant. Unlike in Nandigram, here the government had offered a better price for the land acquired and the compensation for the first time in India included Bargadars (sharecroppers).

Yet, the land acquisition started triggering protests and low intensity violence as a large number of dependants on these land holdings (artisans, landless labourers, etc) could not be compensated nor were they promised employment in the upcoming factory. The issue was quickly capitalised on by the main opposition TMC. Mamata Banejree, the fiery TMC chief who was on the forefront of the Nandigram land stir that brought lots of brickbats for the Bhattacharjee government, took to the streets again, opposing the land acquisition. Her 26-day fast demanding Tata Motors to return land to ’unwilling’ farmers virtually sealed the fate of the Nana factory in Singur as the company found it difficult to carry out project works. On 7 October, 2008, the Tata Motors took the unprecedented decision of relocating the Nano plant to Sanand in Gujarat.

While Tata’s decision to shift its much publicised small car factory to Gujarat dealt a body blow to the Bhattacharjee government, the Singur agitation accelerated further Mamata Banerjee’s march to unseat the 35-year-old Left government. Once in power in 2011, as promised to Singur farmers, the new government quickly brought out a legislation named the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act 2011 to facilitate return of land to ’unwilling’ farmers. However, the Act was challenged by the Tata Motors. On June 28, 2011, a single judge bench of the Calcutta High Court ruled in favour of the State government. However, the judgment was challenged by the Tata Motors in the form of a review petition in the High Court.

A two-member bench of the High Court overruled the earlier judgment on the ground that the said Act was brought out in clear violation of the 1894 Central Land Acquisition Act. According to the bench, since the state land acquisition Act had lapsed way back in 1993, the acquisitions made in Singur were carried out under the provisions of the 1894 Central Act. Therefore, any new act or amendment made by the state assembly must have the assent of the President of India so as to ensure the said Act is in conformity with the Central legislation. The Singur Act was in direct violation of Article 254 of the Constitution. In addition, the bench declared the Act unconstitutional as it had no specifics of compensation to be provided to the Tatas. The hurriedly drafted Act (The Singur bill was introduced on June 14, 2011 and cleared the same day even without a perfunctory discussion!) which had left the compensation issue to the judgment of district magistrate, did not spell out the basis or key criteria to determine quantum of compensation. In view of plenty of loopholes and legal infirmities, the overturning of the impugned Act was not entirely unexpected.

Possible Ramifications

The Singur judgment is significant for various reasons. One, it comes at a time when Mamata Banerjee is facing serious challenges from multiple fronts. The state is in deep financial crisis and her government is struggling to meet even routine expenses, forget about announcing any grand development agenda. Her inability to secure a bailout package for the debt-ridden state has made things even worse for her. Given this, she has little luxury of going ballistic against Tatas.

2012 is no 2008. When the Singur controversy erupted, her party was in opposition. Today she sits in the seat of the Chief Minister. Therefore, going overdrive over Singur would only further reinforce the growing public perception that she is ’inflexible, anti-industry and "more left than the Left parties". Therefore, the judgment has come at a crucial juncture which would test if Ms. Banerjee is truly an activist or a political animal. Those who know Ms. Banerjee well would vow that when occasions demand, she would opt for the later. One clear demonstration of her astute political sense can be seen in the case of making a complete U-turn against the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), a front organisation for the armed Maoists. It must be recalled, PCPA leadership had openly campaigned for the TMC with the understanding that once in power, the party would go soft on its activities. She chose to go hard against them when the situation demanded her to be so.

Of course, like any other state administration, Mamata Banerjee’s government may go on appealing the case in the Supreme Court. But as political prudence demands in this case, she will have to find an escape route (less damaging politically!) to avoid being branded as an anti-industry and inflexible politician that can further jeopardise the fragile health of the state economy. At this stage, her best ally could be something she had used as a sort of instrument for her electoral gains. This instrument is the much delayed land acquisition bill, which thanks largely to Mamata Banerjee, is in comatose since 2007. This bill also contains many of her concerns like compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation, annuity, equity sharing, etc - the issues she had raised in Nandigram and Singur. Moreover, the bill has substantially improved the definition of ’public purpose’ and the stakes of indirect stake holders of the acquired land. While the enactment of the new land legislation may not directly address Mamata Banerjee’s Singur dilemma, it can help to improve her public image which hurting industrialisation in the state. In some way, she can also use this central legislation to get out of her catch 22 situation regarding Singur. In short, the setback of Mamata Banerjee government in the Calcutta High court, partly because of the archaic central legislation, may now provide a new opportunity for the Centre, and may be also for Mamata Banerjee, to get this important bill passed in the coming Parliament session.

(Niranjan Sahoo is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

Read More +