The Supreme Court’s verdict quashing the West Bengal government’s land acquisition at Singur for a Tata Motors plant has been hailed as a reality check to State acquisition of agricultural land for private industrial, infrastructure and real estate projects. It is bound to make the rendra Modi government at the Centre think long and hard about the land bill it has been trying to push through parliament for over a year. After farmer bodies and trade unions rose in protest against the bill aimed to make land more easily available for factories, townships, highways and other projects, the NDA powers-be had to let the bill lapse in August 2015. But this is a battle that will be joined again, once the Rajya Sabha numbers change to NDA’s favor in the next two years. But in the rush to build infrastructure for ‘Make in India’, efforts for consensus building on land acquisition and reform must never be given up; neither should the concerned laws be broken or rules bent to provide land on a platter to corporates. This is the lesson loud and clear from the Singur verdict. For West Bengal’s CPI(M) government in 2006, making the 997 acres land available for the Tata no project was considered an acid test in its efforts to attract private capital to the state. Now the apex court has termed the entire land acquisition process ‘perverse, illegal, malafide in the legal sense and a farce’. The then Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government has been held to have broken land acquisition laws by neither carrying out a survey, nor giving public notice for receiving objections from farmers unwilling to part with their land. 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,” the SC bench has said.
The Trimool is rejoicing at the SC verdict as vindication of its stand to lead the Singur agitation, which culmited in the party unseating the Left Front from power. But Mamata Banerjee is now enthroned in Writer’s Building, anxious to give a pro-business image to her government. The Singur farmers will all get their land back; those who had resisted can now claim the compensation as well, while those who had accepted compensation then will not have to return it. But whether their land will be fit for cultivation in the near future is another matter, for the Tatas had reportedly sunk in over Rs 300 crore to develop the land for its plant, before deciding to shift to Gujarat. The SC bench has now said it is ‘completely understandable’ for the government to acquire land to set up industrial units, but the manner it rammed the process through by cutting corners was wrong in the eyes of law. Was this land acquisition for public purpose, as the state government had then claimed? The differing opinions of the two-member SC bench of Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra indicate the complexity of the issue. According to Justice Gowda, the process was disguised as ‘public purpose’ merely to circumvent mandatory legal provisions. However, Justice Mishra said in his ruling that acquiring land to set up industry as part of the government’s efforts to attract investment and create jobs did serve a ‘public purpose’, but the methods employed were ucceptable.
So any government mulling land acquisition for similar purpose will have to take care. Conversion of farmland for non-agricultural purposes is not a matter to be rushed through by riding roughshod over all opposition. Consensus has to be built with due sensitivity to the farmer’s right over land. After all, land is the only asset that guarantees income and security for rural families in this country where almost half the rural population is landless. Having land gives better access to credit facilities and welfare schemes, as well as prospects to set up cottage units. As it is, land reform in India during the Sixties and Seventies was left unfinished, leaving much inequality in land holdings to this day. So when a government gets gung-ho over acquiring land for corporates, it cannot complain if the matter touches raw nerves and blows up in its face. The Assam government too stirred a hornet’s nest two years back with an official memo, empowering DCs to issue no-objection certificates on transfer of land, recorded as agricultural but ‘unfit for agricultural activities’ — so that industries, housing, educatiol and health institutions and the like can be built. Questions were then asked as to the criteria for declaring agricultural land to be unfit for cultivation; suspicions were voiced that the administration can be manipulated and bribed by corporates to acquire farmlands through the backdoor. But the need to make land available for investors, or to see them leaving for other states, continues to remain alive for the BJP-led government in Assam. It is now considering setting up a ‘land bank’ for corporates, made up of lands which belonged to PSUs and mills now defunct. Only around 2,100 bighas of such land have been identified under the Revenue department. Once the pressure develops for more land, Dispur will need a carefully drafted policy to prevent unethical attempts towards farmland conversion.