Kolkata/Singur: The controversial Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act—the first law promulgated a year ago by West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress government—was on Friday declared “unconstitutional and void” by a two-judge division bench of the Calcutta high court, which held that it was beyond the judiciary’s “jurisdiction” to suggest measures to “rectify” a deficient statute.
With this, the battle between Tata Motors Ltd and the West Bengal government over the seizure of the car maker’s aborted factory at Singur moves to the Supreme Court, with the scoreline reading, according to state government lawyers, “one-all”.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
The judgement left the state’s lawyers shaken—they took responsibility for the defeat saying that it was their failure to argue the case cogently, and not inherent deficiencies in the Act, which led to the setback. Friday’s judgement struck down the basic purpose of the Act—that of returning land to farmers who did not receive compensation in protest against land acquisition—as “not permissible”.
The decision is a blow for West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose government pushed the law through. Singur was one of the key flash points in the political battle that led to her defeating the Left Front.
The state government was given two months to challenge the verdict. It was barred from distributing land at Singur for now.
The state had won the first round of the legal battle at the trial court, which in September last year ruled that the Act wasn’t invalid despite its “vagueness and uncertainty” over the compensation to be paid to Tata Motors for its seized factory.
Trial court judge I.P. Mukerji sought to “rectify” this “defect” by deriving from the land acquisition Act a principle for compensating Tata Motors, but division bench judges Pinaki Chandra Ghosh and Mrinal Kanti Chaudhuri ruled, relying on apex court judgements, that “the court has no jurisdiction to…rewrite/recast/reframe” a statute.
Tata Motors’s senior counsel Samaraditya Pal said justice had been done to Tata Motors and its component suppliers. A company spokesperson said, “We are studying the order.”
The dispute stems from the controversial move a year ago to forcibly take possession of Tata Motors’s factory without adequate notice and without paying compensation. The aim was to return land to so-called “unwilling farmers”, or those who refused to accept compensation from the state for the 2006 land acquisition for the factory.
Friday’s judgement said the Singur Act fell foul of section 254 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with inconsistencies between laws promulgated by the Centre and the states.
The division bench judges held that there were “clear and direct inconsistencies” between the Singur Act and the land acquisition Act—a central law from 1894—which couldn’t be reconciled without obtaining the assent of India’s President.
The West Bengal government decided to go ahead with the Singur Act without seeking the President’s nod to expedite the enactment of the law. The state argued that the Singur Act only sought to terminate lease agreements with the car maker and its component suppliers, and that it wasn’t aimed at acquiring land.
The state couldn’t in the first place acquire a tract of land that it itself owned under provisions of the land acquisition Act and that the purpose of enacting a new law was to quickly regain possession of the land, lawyers for the state said in court. Their view was dismissed by the bench, which said the Singur Act “is a law relating to acquisition” and that some of its provisions were in “direct conflict” with the land acquisition Act.
“I have no comments to offer on the Singur verdict,” Banerjee said on her Facebook page. “Throughout my life I have struggled for farmers…I will continue to fight for this cause. Finally, the people’s choice in (a) democracy will prevail.”
Singur’s despondent farmers said they had been let down by their political leaders. “Where is didi now?” asked Champa De, referring to Banerjee. “We have been short-changed for political gains,” said De, whose family refused compensation for its two bighas, or two-thirds of an acre. De has to walk for half an hour to excavate a pond under the rural job guarantee scheme to make ends meet.