Singur Verdict : Inspiring Victory for Peasants Warning To Governments Against Land Grab and State Repression

THE Supreme Court verdict setting aside land acquisition for the Tata Nano project in Singur and ordering return of the illegally-acquired land to the peasants of Singur is a historic victory for the peasants’ movement.

The verdict vindicates the position argued by the Singur peasants and a range of democratic supporters throughout – that the land acquisition was illegal and immoral and robbed the peasants of their land, livelihood and rights in order to appease the corporate Tata.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front Government that had all along defended the Singur land grab was punished with electoral debacles. Now, faced with the Supreme Court verdict putting paid to its stubborn defence of the land grab, the CPI(M) leadership has continued to claim absurdly that the blame lies with the 1894 Land Acquisition Act “which was the only legal instrument available at that time.” This plea fails to convince, however, since the Supreme Court has held the acquisition at Singur to be a violation of the 1894 Act, not the present Land Acquisition Act. The West Bengal Government led by the CPI(M) violated even the norms for acquisition set down in the 1894 Act and unleashed repression on peasants resisting land grab. Instead of continuing to defend the indefensible, the CPI(M) ought to accept the Supreme Court verdict as a vindication of the fighting peasants, apologise and introspect for its high-handed act of corporate land grab.

The Singur verdict should serve as a warning to the Modi Government and every other Government in the country that is trying to usher in land grab laws and snatch land from peasants and adivasis to hand over to corporates. It will serve as a boost in the arm for the ongoing struggles to scrap land grab laws and instead enact laws to protect agricultural, fertile, coastal and forest land from grab.

Meanwhile the Trinamool Congress Government of Mamata Banerjee, while making political capital over the verdict, is ignoring several key demands of the land and livelihood losers – especially the landless agricultural labourers and sharecroppers.

On 12th September, the CPI(ML) held a March in Singur to congratulate the fighting people of Singur who are the real architects of this historic vindication of their struggle and a landmark victory against state-aided corporate land grab all over the country.

The administration tried to stop the March, pressurising CPI(ML) to postpone the March to any date after the official 'Singur celebration' of 14 September by the TMC Government. The CPI(ML) held the March successfully defying this administrative ploy. The statues of Tapasi Malik and Rajkumar Bhool, martyrs of the Singur struggle were garlanded before a public meeting was held which were attended by agricultural and other rural labourers and share croppers who lost their livelihood because of the acquisition. The gathering raised the demands for compensation for these livelihood losers, payment of compensation with interest for those who had refused to accept compensation in protest, and return of the land in cultivable conditions. The CM Mamata Banerjee's announcements on 14 September did not address these demands and a signature campaign is now underway to raise them again powerfully. The Local TMC MLA of Haripal and the local police and TMC leaders are trying to browbeat and intimidate the people away from this campaign. But the Singur struggle, emboldened by the Supreme Court verdict, continues!

Highlights of the Verdict

There are several significant features of the Singur verdict. It is notable that the Tata Motors Limited (TML henceforth) was represented by Abhishek Manu Singhvi as legal counsel, who is also a Congress leader. Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network represented the land-losers while Prashant Bhushan represented the Association of Democratic Rights. Singhvi argued that the present West Bengal Government was bound to defend the position taken by the Government that had acquired the land for TML. A change in Government, he argued on behalf of TML, could not be ground for a change in stand, and the present Government must honour its predecessor’s contract with Tata! Such an argument implies that an elected Government’s obligations towards corporate contracts is above its obligations to the democratic voice of the people it is supposed to represent! The Supreme Court bench correctly rejected such contentions, pointing out that “While it is true that rule of law cannot be sacrificed for the sake of furthering political agendas, it is also a well established position of law 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.”

The Bench of Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra agreed for different reasons, in separate judgments, to quash the Singur land acquisition process. Justice Gowda held that the acquisition did not fulfil the definition of ‘public purpose’ set out under the 1894 Act while Justice Mishra disagreed. But both agreed that the legal processes laid out for acquiring the land and awarding compensation had been violated.

Public Purpose or Corporate Appeasement?

Justice Gowda argued that “Section 3(f) of the L.A. Act...clearly indicates that the acquisition of land for companies is not covered within the public purpose.” He held that “...the lands in question were acquired by the State Government for a particular Company (TML), at the instance of that Company. Further, the exact location and site of the land was also identified by TML. Even the notifications issued under Sections 4 and 6 of the L.A. Act clearly state that the land in question was being acquired for the ‘Small Car Project’ of TML. In view of the foregoing reasons, by no stretch of imagination can such an acquisition of lands be held to be one for ‘public purpose’ and not for a company. If the acquisition of lands in the instant case does not amount to one for the company, I do not know what would.”

So Justice Gowda concluded that “Such an acquisition, if allowed to sustain, would lead to the attempt to justify any and every acquisition of land of the most vulnerable sections of the society in the name of ‘public purpose’ to promote socio-economic development.”

Industrial Development Welcome,

But Not At the Cost of Rights of Poor Peasants and Agricultural Workers

Justice Gowda rejected the attempt of TML (and the CPIM-led West Bengal State Government) to set up the debate as being for or against ‘industrial development.’ His order said, “In this day and age of fast paced development, it is completely understandable for the state government to want to acquire lands to set up industrial units. What, however, cannot be lost sight of is the fact that 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, as is the case in the instant fact situation, it is the onerous duty of the state Government to ensure that the mandatory procedure laid down under the L.A. Act and the Rules framed there under are followed scrupulously otherwise the acquisition proceedings will be rendered void ab initio in law. Compliance with the provisions of the L.A. Act cannot be treated as an empty formality by the State Government, as that would be akin to handing over the eminent domain power of State to the executive, which cannot be permitted in a democratic country which is required to be governed by the rule of law.”

Thoroughly Illegal Process of Acquisition

Justice Gowda concluded that “Notices were issued to the objectors individually but the same could not be served upon the owners/cultivators of the proposed lands to be acquired. It is further mentioned in the record that the announcements were made through loudspeakers and by publications in the newspapers....Even though the land owners/cultivators did not appear before the Land Acquisition Collector, the objections filed by them ought to have been considered objectively by him as required under Section 5-A (2) of the L.A. Act.”

Justice Gowda concluded that “From a perusal of the proceedings before the Collector, which are made available to this Court, it becomes clear that the same have been rejected without assigning any clear reasons or application of mind. Thus, the report of the Collector is not a valid report in the eyes of law. The State Government has mechanically accepted the same without application of mind independently before issuing notification under Section 6 of the L.A. Act declaring that the lands are required for establishment of automobile industry by TML.”

Violation of Due Processes for Awarding Compensation

Justice Gowda’s order points out that “After issuing the notifications under Section 6 of the L.A. Act declaring that the lands have been acquired for the purpose of industrial development, a statutory duty is cast upon the Collector to issue notice to the land owners/cultivators, as required under Section 9 of the L.A. Act, to determine the market value of the acquired land and award compensation as required under Section 11 of the L.A. Act which is mandatory for taking possession of the land by the State Government....

“As can be seen from material on record, no individual notices were served upon the land owners/cultivators. A joint inquiry appears to have been conducted by the Land Acquisition Collector without giving them an adequate opportunity to establish their claim for determination of reasonable compensation for acquisition of lands by presenting true and correct market value of the lands. The determination of market value of lands by clubbing a number of cases together and passing a composite award is no award in the eyes of law.”

The Singur verdict will embolden peasants and agricultural workers who are demanding justice against land grab – both in cases where land grab took place under the 1894 Act and in cases where the provisions of the present Act are violated in order to grab land.

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