New Delhi/Singur: In a political setback to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed the West Bengal government from returning land to farmers in Singur.
However, the apex court avoided any discussion on the controversial law newly enacted by the West Bengal legislature to evict Tata Motors Ltd as the Calcutta high court was still hearing the case. The Supreme Court ruling was in response to Tata Motors seeking a stay on land being handed back to farmers.
But even after news of the apex court’s order reached Singur, the state government continued to carry out the process of demarcating the land to farmers, and was confident that it would prevail in the legal battle. Banerjee had made an electoral promise to return the land to farmers if her party was elected to power.
“The order doesn’t stop us from carrying out surveys and identifying plots (to be returned to previous owners),” said Banerjee. “I am sure the (final) order will be in the favour of the farmers and the people.”
Earlier, the court’s vacation bench comprising justice P. Sathasivam and A.K. Patnaik, while pronouncing the stay order, also asked the high court to expedite hearing of the case. “In view of the urgency expressed by all the parties, we request the high court to dispose of the main matters as early as possible, preferably within a period of one month,” said the Supreme Court’s order.
But this is a only a minor relief for the car maker as the Supreme Court didn’t restore possession of the abandoned factory that the state seized from it last week. For now, Tata Motors has managed to stall the state government’s move to create any third-party interest by preventing the immediate return of the land.
Tata contended that the situation on the ground was changing and might reach an irreversible position. “The position must be frozen. Every day they are going on changing the position. The high court has been hearing the interim issue for the last seven days and every day the government is doing whatever they want. This is the respect they have for the court,” said Mukul Rohatgi, Tata Motors’ lawyer.
The firm clarified its position in court saying that it was currently only challenging the return of land to the farmers and not the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act 2011. The constitutional validity of the Act is being contested by the company in the Calcutta high court, which declined any interim relief.
Rohatgi also argued that the government’s actions were bad in law. “It is settled law that when land is acquired and public purpose is established there is no question of reverting the land,” he said.
The state government’s counsel told the Supreme Court that the administration was only in the process of determining the allocation of the land and it was not physically handing over the property to the farmers yet. He said this would first have to be determined by a committee in order to settle any objections.
“I can’t do it until the high court committee hears their claims. Unless they decide these objections, they cannot return the land,” said the state’s counsel, P.P. Rao.
Meanwhile, the state government said it would continue with its preparations to return the land to its erstwhile owners as it was confident of winning the case. Sripriya Rangarajan, district magistrate of Hooghly, said: “We are currently verifying the title of the claimants. We will carry on.”
The farmers too were hopeful. Some landowners who had turned up to collect their title deed refused to leave even after news of the Supreme Court order. Ram Krishna Kolay, one of the 12 erstwhile landowners of Singur identified by the government, said: “I am not going to leave without collecting the title deed.” While inviting applications from erstwhile owners entitled to receive land, the state government had said it would also consider objections if any raised to its proposed redistribution of land.
“I know the law—the government has to give a month to hear objections,” said Banerjee. “The previous government wouldn’t even do that.”
Earlier in the day, the Trinamool Congress lawmakers pressured the Hooghly district administration to immediately issue title deeds to the 12 persons identified on Tuesday to receive land, but Rangarajan held out, saying it was mandatory to wait till the last date for filing objections. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and the leader of opposition in the state assembly Surjya Kanta Mishra said if the Left parties were voted to power, they would have “reasoned with the farmers”, instead of returning the land. “We would have built a factory at Singur, but what this government has done will only complicate matters,” he added.
Tata Motors objected strongly to the manner in which they were dispossessed of the land: “The Act seeks to legalize force and taking advantage of the same, the state by a midnight operation using police force dispossessed the security guards from the plant site and trespassed into it,” said company spokesman Debasis Ray in an emailed statement. The company also questioned the procedure under the new law for determining compensation.
“The Act appoints the district judge of Hooghly as the adjudicator for determining the compensation, without any guidelines or parameters, on the basis of which the compensation would be decided. It gives an unguided delegation of powers to the district judge (of) Hooghly in clear derogation of the Constitution of India,” Tata Motors said.