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Singur: Mamata leads the way to salvation

Mamata Banerjee won a victory of morality and the masses in 2011 in the legislative Assembly elections. The basis of this victory as many have contended was the Singur agitation movement of 2008 where she had espoused the cause of the local farmers and cultivators against the unbridled capitalist incursion of the then ironically communist government. Much was said of the protest and the 26-day hunger strike and as with most political agitations, the principle and reasons one espouses, was lost in the humdrum of media channels and political commentators and was guffawed at by the then Communist Government.

The Supreme Court on August 31 delivered its judgment in the appeals arising out of the order dated January 18, 2008 of the High Court at Calcutta wherein the challenge was against the acquisition of about 1,000 acre of land in Singur.

The then CPI(M) government had formulated an industrial policy to establish an automobile industry in the state and had entered into discussions with the Tata Motors Ltd (TML) in this regard. Amongst other requirements, TML had indicated that it shall require about 1000 acres of land on outright sale or long lease basis.

On March 29, 2006 Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, wrote to the Chairman of TML stating that a site right next to Kharagpur Town on National Highway-6 has been identified and the approval of the Board of Directors of TML in this regard is awaited. Pursuant to the same, on June 5, 2006 a notification under section IV(1) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (“LA Act”) was published wherein it was stated that the scheduled land is “likely to be needed to be taken over by the Government at the public expense for a public purpose, viz. employment generation and socio economic development of the area by setting up Tata Small Car Project in the Mouza Beraberi, jurisdiction list no.5, P.S. Singur, District Hooghly”.

In terms of section V A of the LA Act, objections were received from land owners/ cultivators against the publication under section IV of the LA Act. The Collector submitted his report dated August 31, 2006 to the state government wherein it was concluded that the acquisition of the land was needed for public purpose and, as far as the objectors were concerned, as they did not appear before him to justify their objections, it appeared that the said objectors were not interested to proceed any further and, as such, the objections could be ignored in the interest of the public and the state. The objectors did not receive an opportunity of being heard and an award for compensation was made on September 25, 2006. TML was directed to take permissive possession on 950 acre of land pending finalisation, immediately.

The aforesaid proceedings and the disputes arising thereto were litigated before the Calcutta High Court in various proceedings and, the appeal before the Apex Court was thus decided on August 31.

The following points had arisen for determination before the Court:-
1. Whether the lands involved in these proceedings have been acquired for a public purpose or for a company (TML) and whether due process has been followed for the same under the LA Act?
2. Whether the inquiry as contemplated under section 5-A(2) of the LA Act has been duly conducted by the Land Acquisition Collector?
3. Whether the Land Acquisition Collector has assigned reasons in his report for rejecting landowners/cultivators after application of mind?
4. Whether the report of the Land Acquisition Collector is based on the decision of the state government taken prior to issuing notification under section 6 of the LA Act?
5. Whether the awards have been passed after holing due inquiry under section 9 of the LA Act and also in compliance with the principle of natural justice?
6. Whether the compensation awarded in favour of the land owners/cultivators is based on a proper application of the market value of the land?
7. What is the legal effect on the acquisition proceedings of not conducting an inquiry under section 5-A(2) and passing composite awards under section 11 of the LA Act?
8. What order can be passed in these proceedings at this stage?

Issue Nos. 1: In dealing with issue nos.1, the Hon’ble Justices have deferred in their interpretation of what constitutes “Public Purpose”.  The Hon’ble Justice V. Gopala Gowda has opined that in terms of section 3F of the LA Act, acquisition of land for companies is not covered under public purpose.  A perusal of section 4(1) of the LA Act clearly indicates that the purpose was for setting up of Tata Small Car Project. Looking at the relevant policy documents in the original requisition filed, it is evident that in the instant case under no circumstance could it be said that the requisition was at the instance of WBIDC or for fulfillment of some scheme or corporation or the State Government.

There seem to have been no application of mind at the stage of such notification under section 4 or in the report of the Collector addressing the objections raised thereto.  Such instances where the most vulnerable sections of the society are prejudiced in the name of public purpose. If such acquisition of land is permitted, it would render the whole of Part VII of the LA Act nugatory and redundant.
Issue nos. 2, 3 and 4: Section V A embodies the most important rules of natural justice and lays down that any person interested in any land under section IV(1) of the L.A Act may within 30 days of such notification submit objection in writing against the proposed acquisition of land or of any land, of being heard either in person or by any person authorised by him. After such hearing of the objectors and making such further inquiries as he may think is necessary, the Collector has to make a report with his recommendation and forward the same to the Government.  On the allegation that the objectors did not come up for hearing before the Land Acquisition Collector, the Hon’ble Apex Court held that the objections filed by them ought to have been heard or dealt with under section 5-A(2) of the LA Act. 

Issue nos.5, 6, 7 and 8: Section 9 of the LA Act makes it incumbent upon the Collector to issue individual notices to the land owners/cultivators to determine market value of the acquired land and award compensation in terms of section 11 of the LA Act. The records of the proceedings nowhere mentions compliance of the said section and noncompliance of the LA Act is evident.   Service of personal notice is mandatory and noncompliance with the provisions would render the award invalid even though the same would have no effect on the validity of the notification under section 4 and declaration made under section 6 of the LA Act. The fact remains that proper procedure has not been followed in the instant matter.

The Court has declined entering into the question of compensation as the same cannot be adjudicated in its writ jurisdiction. However, the Court was pleased to direct that land is given back to all land owners within 12 weeks and if any compensation had been paid in lieu of such land, the same shall not be recovered in lieu of damages for deprivation of possession for 10 years.
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