The land, acquired by the state government, was meant for Tata Motors Ltd’s plant to build the world’s cheapest car, the Nano. The acquisition triggered violence, leading to translocation of the factory, a change of government and protracted litigation.
A bench of justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra said the acquisition of 997 acres by West Bengal’s Left Front government for the Tata Motors plant in Singur failed to meet the requirements of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and directed the state government to return the land to its owners in 12 weeks.
The apex court’s judgement comes as a shot in the arm for the state’s Trinamool Congress government, which came to power in 2011 following a strident campaign against the land acquisition, and brought a law to return the land to its erstwhile owners.
“We concur on the question of quashing the impugned acquisition proceedings and reliefs to be granted to the landowners/cultivators... The acquisition of land of the landowners/cultivators in the instant case is declared as illegal and void," the court said in its verdict.
The court directed the state’s survey settlement department to identify portions of the land to be returned to landowners.
It also said that the compensation paid to landowners will not be recovered by the state government. The court further allowed landowners to withdraw compensation which is in deposit with the collector or the court.
In the course of its judgement, the court set aside an 18 January 2008 decision of the Calcutta high court that dismissed writ petitions challenging the acquisition of several areas in Singur district. The high court had upheld the acquisition, saying it was for the public good.
The two Supreme Court judges gave separate reasons for terming the acquisition illegal.
Justice Gowda, in his ruling, said the state government did not follow the requirements laid down in the Land Acquisition Act, and circumvented them under the guise of “public purpose". Land was acquired only for Tata Motors and as such it could not be called a “public purpose" under the Act, he said.
Justice Mishra, however, said that the acquisition would ultimately benefit people by creating employment opportunities and industrialization. However, he agreed with his colleague on the violation of the provision of the Land Acquisition Act (Section 5A) that mandates a hearing of objections against acquiring land for public purposes.
“The inquiry held under Section 5A is a farce and an eyewash; neither the collector nor the state government considered the matter with objectivity as mandated," he said.
Justice Gowda said the inquiry and the consequent approval for acquisition was done by the state government without applying its mind and by mechanically accepting the flawed report of the land acquisition collector.
The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has since been revisited. In 2013, Parliament passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. This is the current law of the land.
But as the acquisition predates the 2013 law, the earlier Act applies.
“This case is one of the last legacies of 1894 Act. It will not impact future acquisitions because now there is the 2013 law. However, pending litigation under the old law will be impacted by this. The fact that the court quashed the acquisition because objections were not satisfactorily heard and there was meagre compensation paid could be used for pending litigation under the old Act," said Muhammed Khan, a lawyer who helped draft the 2013 land acquisition law.
Tata Motors was given the land to build its plant, but in the wake of violent protests by the Trinamool Congress party, the company moved its project to Sanand in Gujarat.
Soon after coming to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s government passed a law to take back the land from Tata Motors. The firm moved the Calcutta high court, which declared the law unconstitutional. The West Bengal government’s appeal against this order is pending before the Supreme Court.
“The case in which the judgement was delivered today related to the acquisition of land by the state government before it was leased to Tata Motors. Our case relating to Singur Act of 2011 is yet to be heard by the Supreme Court. We will study today’s judgement in detail before commenting further on the same," a Tata Motors spokesperson said.
One of Banerjee’s key poll promises five years ago was to return 400 acres to farmers who did not take compensation for the land. She has always maintained that she is not against the factory, provided the 400 acres are returned to their erstwhile owners. The Supreme Court has also considered at length the distinction made by her government while passing the 2011 law between so-called willing and unwilling farmers on the basis of whether or not they received compensation.
“I can now die in peace," Banerjee said following the judgement, dedicating Wednesday’s “landmark victory" to the “martyrs" of the Singur movement. Recounting her 10-year battle, she said her party got its ma-mati-manush slogan (literally, mother-land-people) from the Singur movement, which will be recalled the world over as people’s victory over injustice.
The state government will review the judgement on Thursday and prepare a plan to return land to its original owners, Banerjee said.
Officials involved with the Singur project, however, said the state government had followed the land acquisition laws of 1894 as diligently as possible. But if the acquisition of land for the Tata project was found to not serve any public purpose, then several other acquisitions would also fall foul of the law, they said, asking not to be identified.
Following this verdict, people who had to surrender land for various other projects such as the Haldia port, Steel Authority of India Ltd’s factory at Burnpur and the new airport near Durgapur could claim that they were victims of illegitimate land acquisition, the officials said.
While the 1894 law is “draconian", Banerjee said, the issue of land acquisition has not been comprehensively dealt with by India’s lawmakers. So, in the absence of any balanced law on the takeover of private property, her government had decided not to acquire land even for infrastructure projects. Land in West Bengal can only be taken over with owners’ consent, she said.
People of Singur took to the streets as soon as they came to know that the apex court had quashed the 2006 land acquisition.
Among those who broke into celebration was Biswanath Das, 80, who was baton-charged by the police 10 years ago. “We never lost hope," he said.
For local Trinamool Congress leader and lawmaker Rabindranath Bhattacharya, the Tata group is still welcome. Much of the land may be found to be unsuitable for cultivation. It needs to be given for industrial use, and anyone including Tata group is welcome, he insisted.
Farmers who had welcomed the move to set up an automobile factory are in disbelief. Krishna Sahana, one of them, said he was disappointed that the factory didn’t materialize. “We will get our land back, but will we be able to cultivate it?" he asked.
Soumonty Kanungo and Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar in Kolkata and Elizabeth Roche in New Delhi contributed to this story.