Singur is still a slippery slope. Nearly all analyses about the Supreme Court judgement of 31 August on returning to farmers the land acquired for Tata Motors Ltd’s Nano project at that site in West Bengal avoid root causes for the fracas that ended in grief for citizens, the state’s Left Front government at the time and the company. This includes aspects of business and human rights that intertwines government with business.

Some analyses have gone to the extent of unquestionably quoting the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which led the government, that had Singur operated within the land acquisition law enacted in 2013 instead of the law of 1894 it replaced, the violence and chaos at Singur over 2007-08 that ultimately led to Tata Motors relocating the project to an eager Gujarat would not have happened. This is untenable, as under both laws the matter at the most basic level involves free, prior and informed consent, not only enhanced compensation and remedial safeguards.

At Singur, Marxist cadres strong-armed land acquisition—with threats, beatings, molestation, rape and killing. Their opponent, the Trinamool Congress party, currently in government, used the incident to reinforce its own political strength.

One of the key observations in the Supreme Court judgement is that Singur was hardly the only option for Tata Motors. I wrote about it in my book Clear.Hold.Build. The book contains detailed case studies of human rights culpability of businesses that ride on the shoulders of government; and how such situations could have easily been avoided, opportunity costs lessened—all to the benefit of what corporate social responsibility executives love to call “stakeholders".

As the court noted, the principal secretary at the commerce and industries department of the government of West Bengal sent a letter dated 23 March 2006 to the “Deputy General Manager, Government Affairs and Collaborations of TML" (Tata Motors Ltd) recalling earlier letters and meetings to set up a “Special Category Project" for the Nano, and with immense state-provided benefits to the company.

The letter recorded that there was agreement “… from TML to set up a plant on 600 acres of land near Kharagpur to manufacture a new car addressing the lower end of the market, with annual capacity of 250,000 units on maturity... the targeted date of commencement of commercial production being the year 2008."

The court noted that six days later the “then Chief Minister of West Bengal"—Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—wrote to “the then Chairman of TML"—Ratan Tata—“regarding the project".

“During our discussion today, you had mentioned the allocation close to Kolkata may be considered," Bhattacharjee wrote. “As you are undoubtedly aware, land around Kolkata is difficult to come by and the cost of such land is also very high. Also, land has to be suitable for industry…"

“We had at first proposed location of this project at Guptamoni, which is about 25km west of Kharagpur towards Jamshedpur on National Highway 6. Thereafter, based on the suggestion given by Shri Ravi Kant"—Tata Motors’ managing director at the time—“during his meeting with Shri Nirupam Sen"—industries minister at the time—“we have now selected a site right next to Kharagpur town, on National Highway 6……The distance to Kharagpur from Kolkata can now be covered in approximately 90 minutes. Haldia Port is at a distance of 100 kms from this location, while Jamshedpur is about 2 hours away." He added: “I can assure you that this is one of the best locations in West Bengal for locating your plant."

Bhattacharjee had personally visited Paschim Medinipur district to request officials to allocate hassle-free land for the project. Officials had readily complied—they had at their disposal vast amounts of “vested" land, acquired, hassle-free land (Gujarat would later offer vested land to Tata Motors). Kharagpur is a few minutes’ drive south of the district headquarters town of Medinipur.

But Tata Motors executives went for Singur. As the court notes, “good connectivity and proximity to airport, as well as quality urban and physical infrastructure" won. But farmland had to be acquired. Farmland meant compensating people and livelihoods. The company bet on the government to come through for it. The government bet on the company. Both lost.

A senior bureaucrat close to the negotiations first told me the inside story. I published it. But it’s nice to have the Supreme Court certify it is true.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Fridays.

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