Singur, West Bengal: Claims for return of land from erstwhile landowners in Singur have fallen short of the state government’s estimates.

So far, claims in respect of some 1,200 erstwhile landowners, from among the 2,200 named in the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act as eligible to reclaim land, have been filed with the district administration, according to Rabindranath Bhattacharya, a legislator from Singur and the state’s minister for agriculture.

The Act was passed earlier this year. The deadline for receiving the applications ended in July.

Ground zero: A file photo of Tata Motors’ abandoned Singur factory. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Some of the people in possession of the land in Singur before it was acquired by the government didn’t have clear titles, according to at least two state government officials, who didn’t want to be named.

The Act says only people who opposed the 2006 acquisition of 997 acres for Tata Motors Ltd’s proposed Nano car factory by not accepting payment from the state government were eligible to reclaim land.

The collective ownership of the people who have managed to establish their “rightful title" is around 235 acres, about 60 acres short of the amount of land the Act seeks to return to erstwhile owners, said Bhattacharya, who spearheaded the agitation against the now-abandoned small-car factory.

The district administration has asked panchayat pradhans, or village council heads, to issue certificates confirming the heirs of deceased landowners whose names appear in the Act, said Bhattacharya.

One such panchayat pradhan, Dudh Kumar Dhara, who heads the Beraberi village council, admitted to have issued at least 500 such certificates. “We aren’t even insisting on production of original death certificates," he said. “Some of these people died decades ago."

Hooghly district magistrate Sripriya Rangarajan declined to discuss the matter in detail, citing the legal dispute over distribution of land in Singur. Tata Motors challenged the constitutional validity of the Act and the dispute over it is currently being heard by an appeals court in Kolkata.

Rangarajan, however, said that “only standard procedures" were being followed in recognizing the claims of erstwhile landowners.

A spokesperson for Tata Motors, from whose company the land was seized in June under the Act, declined to comment on this story. Faced with violent protests from the Trinamool Congress party, the company scrapped the Singur project in October 2008, relocating the plant to Sanand in Gujarat.

The legal opinion on the legitimacy of the certificate being issued by village councils is divided. A section of lawyers said the intervention of village councils was a “reasonable step" in recognizing claims of the successors of deceased landowners, considering the fact that it takes at least a year and a half to obtain a formal succession certificate from courts. These lawyers refused to be identified.

“In my view, most of these people do not have the means to go through the cumbersome legal process of securing succession certificates," one of them said. “And it is surely beyond their means to expedite the process, which means it could take these people years to obtain succession certificates."

However, another section of lawyers questioned the legal validity of vesting powers with the panchayat to determine the legal heirs of the deceased.

“Under established land and succession laws, there is no provision for village councils to conclusively determine successors, bypassing the standard court procedure," said Niloy Pyne, a partner of Amarchand and Mangaldas and Suresh A. Shroff, a leading law firm.

Such means of recognizing the rights of successors will be “deemed arbitrary" and will set “unsound legal precedents with far reaching implications", according to Pyne.

The standard court procedure for obtaining succession certificates requires people claiming to be heirs to issue public notices inviting formal objections. That apart, succession certificates issued by courts clearly indicate the properties to which ownership claims were held to be valid.

The certificates issued by Singur’s village councils, which have been reviewed by Mint, neither indicate why they were issued nor give any detail of the properties to which heirs have staked claims.

Lawyers on both sides of the debate agreed that imposters, if backed by the panchayat, can stake claims to abandoned properties, posing as successors to their rightful owners.