In a severe blow to the Tatas – and to the reputation of the erstwhile left front government in West Bengal – the Supreme Court on Wednesday declared that the the 2006 acquisition of about 1000 acres of land in Singur for the Tata’s Nano small car project was illegal and quashed the acquisition.
A bench comprising Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra, in their 204-page judgment, held that the acquisition was a “colourable exercise of power and a fraud on the people”. It directed the West Bengal government to return the land to the farmers, who originally owned the land, in 12 weeks. The two judges gave separate but concurring judgments.
The common order said “the acquisition of land of the landowners/cultivators in the instant case is declared as illegal and void. Since the nature of the acquired lands has been changed in view of the acquisition, we direct the Survey Settlement Department of the State Government of West Bengal to conduct a survey and identify the mouzas (area) of lands acquired with reference to lay out plans, other connected records, village maps and survey settlement records of the lands in question within 10 weeks in order to identify the respective portions of land which need to be returned to the respective landowners/cultivators. Let possession of the lands be restored to the landowners/cultivators within 12 weeks from the date of receipt of the copy of this judgment and order.”
The bench said the compensation which has already been paid to the land owners or cultivators shall not be recovered by the state government as they have been deprived of the occupation and enjoyment of their lands for the last 10 years. The landowners or cultivators who had not withdrawn their compensation amounts are permitted to withdraw the same which is in deposit either with the land acquisition collector or the court.
A batch of petitions were filed on behalf of farms challenging the proceedings of the acquisition of land to an extent of about 1000 acres within the mouzas – Gopalnagar, Singherberi, Beraberi, Khaserberi and Bajemelia, P.S. Singur, District Hooghly – were dismissed by the Calcutta high court. The appeals are directed against this judgment. In 2008 following agitation in the state, Tata shifted the small car project to Gujarat but held on to the lands stating that it would be used for other ancillary purposes.
The relevant facts are: The state of West Bengal formulated an industrial policy to establish automobile industries in the state to cater to the needs of the people and to solve West Bengal’s unemployment problems. It sought a report from the district collector on the nature of lands required and issued a notification acquiring the lands. It was alleged that due procedure was not followed while acquiring the lands.
Accepting the submissions, Justice Gowda said the state government is required to apply mind to the report of the collector and take the final decision on the objections filed by the landowners and other interested persons. Then and then only, a declaration can be made under Section 6(1) of the Land Acquisition Act,1894 (L.A. Act). In this case there seems to be no application of mind either at the stage of issuance of the notification under Section 4 of the L.A. Act, or the report of collector under Section 5-A (2) of the L.A. Act or the issuance of the final notification under Section 6 of the L.A. Act.
He said such an acquisition, if allowed to sustain, would lead to an attempt to justify any and every acquisition of land belonging to the most vulnerable sections of the society, all in the name of ‘public purpose’ to promote socio-economic development. Before land can be acquired, the procedure consistent with the statutory provisions of law must be followed mandatorily. There is nothing in the law which supports the acquisition of land for a particular company under the guise of ‘public purpose’, rendering the exception provided under Section 3(f)(viii) of the L.A. Act useless and nugatory.
Voicing concern over the bulldozing of the entire process, Justice Gowda said “In this day and age of fast paced development, it is completely understandable for the state government to want to acquire lands to set up industrial units. What, however, cannot be lost sight of is the fact that when the brunt of this ‘development’ is borne by the weakest sections of the society, more so, poor agricultural workers who have no means of raising a voice against the action of the mighty state government, as is the case in the instant fact situation, it is the onerous duty of the state government to ensure that the mandatory procedure laid down under the L.A. Act and the rules framed thereunder are followed scrupulously otherwise the acquisition proceedings will be rendered void ab initio in law.”
He said that the state government cannot treat its compliance with the provisions of the L.A. Act as an empty formality, as that would amount to handing over the eminent domain power of state to the executive. This cannot be permitted in a democratic country which is required to be governed by the rule of law. It is also a well settled principle of law that if the manner of doing a particular act is prescribed under any statute the act must be done in that manner or not at all. It becomes clear that in the instant case, the lands in question were acquired by the state government for a particular company, Tata Motors Limited (TML), at the insistence of that company. By no stretch of the imagination can such a transaction be considered an acquisition for ‘public purpose’. If the acquisition of land in the instant case does not amount to a transaction undertaken for the company’s interest, I do not know what does.
The acquisition in the instant case in favour of the company is thus, improper for not following the mandatory procedure prescribed under the L.A. Act and Rules and therefore the acquisition proceedings are liable to be quashed.
Justice Mishra however, differed with Justice Gowda’s opinion that the notification was not intended for public good. Justice Mishra said, “acquisition of land for establishing such an industry would ultimately benefit the people and the very purpose of industrialisation, generating job opportunities hence it would be open to the state government to invoke the provisions of the LA Act. When government wants to attract the investment, create job opportunities and aims at the development of the state and secondary development, job opportunities, such acquisition is permissible for public purpose.” He, however, agreed with Justice Gowda that proper procedure was not followed and this vitiated the acquisition process. Exercising powers under Article 142 of the constitution to do substantive justice, he set aside the acquisition and granted relief to farmers.