Tata Motors is opportunistically treating the proposed car plant at Singur as a public project in one instance and as a private commercial one in another. It should be asked to decide.
The Calcutta high court on Friday passed an interim, two-week stay on an order by the West Bengal information commissioner, asking the state government to make public the agreement on the Nano project between the government, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) and Tata Motors.
Parts of the agreement are already available for public viewing on the state industrial body’s website. But a right to information activist asked for the entire details of the agreement, including certain annexures, to be made public. Tata Motors argued in court that the agreement between the three parties was a trade secret and hence should not be revealed in its entirety.
The implicit assumption here is that the deal between Tata Motors and West Bengal involves a private commercial project. We see no reason to dispute that. It is quite likely that the relevant annexures in the agreement have details on the project economics that Tata Motors would rather not share with the outside world, especially its competitors.
But this does not quite square up with the fact that the company is planning to put up its project on 997 acres that have been forcibly acquired from farmers in Singur. In this instance, the state government has made use of an antiquated and unfair colonial law that allows it to take over land for public purpose.
We have argued earlier in these columns that in the rare cases that the state should be allowed to take over private land, it should be restricted to those projects that satisfy the technical definition of a public good — non-rival (more than one person can use it at the same time, as in the case of a street lamp) and non-excludable (where it is impossible to leave any “consumer” out, as in national defence).
The Tata Nano project cannot be treated as a public project in one context (land acquisition) and as a commercial project in another (disclosure of its pact with West Bengal). Such duality gives development a bad name.
Should the Tata-WBIDC agreement be kept secret? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org