One for the people
In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court declared on Wednesday that the acquisition of 997 acres of land under the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act in Singur for the Tata Nano plant was “grossly perverse and illegal”, and quashed it. This judgement is a severe indictment of the previous Left Front government’s policy of forcibly acquiring land for big business at the cost of farmer interests. In the words of the two-judge bench, the acquisition was a “colourable exercise of power and fraud on the people”. It also directed the Bengal government to return the land to the farmers, who originally owned the land, in 12 weeks. 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". Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s long fought battle against the forcible acquisition of farmland began long before she took office in 2011. “I have always fought to establish the rights of people. The landmark judgment has put a stamp on a movement against forcible acquisition of land. Now, if I die today, I can even die a peaceful death,” she said. The Singur agitation was started in 2006 by dispossessed farmers in the backdrop of then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s insistence on using the previous Land Acquisition Act to forcefully acquire farmland for the Tata Nano plant. In the wake of such injustice, Mamata Banerjee stood in solidarity with the dispossessed farmers and organised a movement to protect their interests. It was the Singur movement, which gave birth to the TMC’s slogan, “Maa-Mati-Manush” (mother-earth-people). Defending the rights of poor farmers, who directly depend on the land for sustenance, has become one of the cornerstones of the current TMC government’s vision for Bengal.
In 2008, the popular agitation resulted in Tata pulling out of Singur and moving to Gujarat, where a certain Narendra Modi was waiting. The momentum generated against the Left Front government from the Singur movement and subsequently, the violent Nandigram agitation propelled Banerjee to the Chief Minister’s office in 2011. Riding on the wave of popular support following her role in these popular agitations, the first decision Mamata made after assuming office in 2011 was to return the 400 acres of land forcibly acquired for the Nano plant to the original owners. To facilitate the process, the TMC government passed a law to take-over from Tata Motors the land given to it by her predecessor. However, Tata Motors challenged the law and in 2012, the Calcutta High Court ruled in favour of the company. In response, the TMC government took the matter to the apex court, which has not yet arrived at a decision. Speaking to the State Assembly earlier this year, Banerjee said, “I have done my bit for Singur. We have enacted the law to return land. Now it’s in the courts. If the courts take five years or 50 years, we are helpless.” On Wednesday, however, the courts ruled in her favour. Five years after her stunning victory over the Left Front behemoth, Mamata’s promise to return the land back to the farmers of Singur has been fulfilled. But during the interim period, Singur was left with little farming land and industry. In its place, Singur received superior rural development from the TMC government.
Farmers forced to part with their land under the Left Front government receive free rations. This includes 16 kilogrammes of rice and a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 for each family, according to report in Scroll.in. Besides provisions for the dispossessed, the TMC government has initiated a whole host of developmental works in Singur. Under Mamata, unpaved dirt roads have been metalled. Sabuj Sathi (Green Companion), a government scheme to distribute cycles to students from classes 9 to 12, has become very popular in the region. The scheme has done wonders for higher school enrolment. Earlier this year, the government announced the Khadya Sathi scheme, which aims to ensure that 70 lakh people in the state get subsidised food and cereals at half the market price while over 7 crore people would receive 5 kg of foodgrain every month at Rs 2 per kg. The scheme has targeted the “poor and very poor”, many of whom who aren’t covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Unlike certain state governments, Bengal has also done exceptionally well to leverage the benefits of centrally-sponsored entitlement schemes. For farmers, the TMC government introduced crucial land reforms, which included giving rights to sharecroppers for the land they tilled. It also scrapped the state’s Special Economic Zone policy and resisted pressure from various quarters to repeal the land ceiling act.
Despite a tussle with Tata Group on the Singur Act of 2011, several of the company’s projects are underway in the state. Mamata has been unequivocal in her claim that Bengal is the final destination for economic investment in this country. After the Left Front government's disastrous attempts at industrialisation, the TMC has picked up the pieces and gradually brought industry back into West Bengal. In her second term, there has been a renewed focus on industry, keeping it at par with the rural development agenda. The Bengal government has a long way to go before it creates an environment that is conducive to industrial growth. But the seeds for future development have been sowed. In the popular media, there exists a perception that pro-poor policies and industrial growth often work at cross-purposes. The Bengal example suggests that this is a misleading perception.