Home >opinion >What Singur teaches us about land rights

When the Supreme Court declared last week that the land acquisition in Singur for Tata’s Nano factory was “illegal and void", the long struggle of Singur’s farmers for their rights bore fruit. In a rare sight, the state and the judiciary stood together to uphold these rights.

Land and its related laws have been used and misused in the name of welfare for a long time. In 1949, the Right to Property began its journey as a fundamental right in Part III of the Constitution. It was diminished to the status of a statutory right with constitutional backing in 1978. At the time, only the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was available for legal reference in land deals besides the constitutional provision. It allowed the state to acquire land for a public good even if it was against the will of the party in concern.

Though an entry in the concurrent list, the states could not sufficiently fill in for this lacuna in the central law with their laws. Most did not have a comprehensive rehabilitation and resettlement plan as a part of their land policy. The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, was a relief in this context. Besides making provisions for optimal compensation, it made clear that an acquisition can occur if and only if 80% of the owners of the land under consideration agree to the proposal.

In 2006, when Tata laid out its plan for the Nano plant in Singur, the 1894 law was operational. With the stated intention of helping the unemployment situation, the faltering industrial sector and stagnating economic growth, Singur’s fertile stretches were acquired. The government claimed that most of the acquired land was wasteland. In reality, these figures were close to only 6% of the total land.

Around 45-50% of the landowners were unwilling to give up their land. They were forced to evacuate nevertheless with minimal compensation or rehabilitation options. It was the discontent which arose from this issue that the Trinamool Congress capitalized on to come to power in 2011.

The Supreme Court verdict notes two significant anomalies in the Singur case. One, the state’s acquirement of land for private parties does not classify as a ‘public good’. Second, the compulsory provisions to be adhered to before acquiring land were not met by the state government, which took the task upon itself. Eminent domain—the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation—was thus exploited without due adherence to the rules of the land. The numerous acquisitions which followed the passing of the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, is another example of state overreach.

In Singur, this resulted in the local farmers losing land and their livelihood along with it. The jobs which were promised never came to be. Experts argue that even if the project was to materialize, the employment effect would not be as large as expected.

If the present government manages to return the land in the next 12 weeks as per the court’s instructions, the people will definitely benefit. But it does not assure a return to the former state of affairs. Singur is not what it was a decade ago. Construction activities have rendered a major part of the 1,000 acres unfit for cultivation, at least for a while.

In this scenario, the court’s decision to allow the land owners to retain the compensation received as reparation for the socioeconomic losses incurred by them comes as a respite.

However, this is not to say that land acquisition as a whole is bad or that all instances of state acquiring land have ended badly. Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are examples of states successful in land acquisition ventures. Only a project which values the social costs of land acquisition through methods such as the Social Impact Assessment and sufficiently compensates them for these costs after earning their consent can truly achieve its stated objective.

Models such as land pooling have been successful due to the keen participation of all stakeholders. In land pooling, land is voluntarily given to the developer and then returned to the owner in a smaller proportion with better amenities. It has proved to be successful in the building of Andhra Pradesh’s new capital, Amaravati. It gives the landowners an annual compensation for the land and returns their land to them with an appreciated value.

Though not the cure to all land problems, consultation with stakeholders and new techniques such as pooling can go a long way in accomplishing what could not be achieved through forceful eviction. The government would do well to learn these lessons.

Should the government stop acquiring land for private parties? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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