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Supreme Court stays Calcutta High Court judgement on Singur Act

September 17th, 2012 1 comment

According to news reports, the Supreme Court stayed a Calcutta High Court judgement on the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 [Singur Act] on August 24, 2012. The apex court also issued a notice to Tata Motors seeking its response within four weeks, on the West Bengal government’s petition challenging the High Court order.

In 2008, the Left Front government acquired land in Singur under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for Tata Motors to build a Nano car factory.  In its first year of coming to power in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led government notified the Singur Act through which it sought to reclaim this land to return a portion of it to farmers.

On June 22, 2012, a Division bench of the Calcutta High Court struck down the Singur Act terming it unconstitutional and void.  In its judgment, the Court found some sections of the Singur Act to be in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894.  As land acquisition is a Concurrent List subject under the Constitution, both Parliament and state legislatures have the power to make laws on it.  However, if provisions in the state law conflict with provisions in the central law, then the state law cannot prevail unless it receives Presidential assent.  The Calcutta High Court held the Singur Act to be unconstitutional because: (a) it was in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and (b) Presidential assent was not obtained for the Act to prevail in West Bengal.

The central Act mentions that for the government to acquire land, it has to demonstrate: (1) that land is being acquired for a public purpose,[i] and (2) that the government will provide compensation to persons from whom land is being acquired.  Provisions in the Singur Act that relate to public purpose and compensation were found to be in conflict with the corresponding provisions in the central Act.  The Court was of the opinion that transfer of land to the farmers does not constitute ‘public purpose’ as defined in the central Act.  As argued by the Tata Motors’ counsel, return of land to unwilling owners is a ‘private purpose’ or in ‘particular interest of individuals’ rather than in the ‘general interest of the community’.  Second, clauses pertaining to compensation to Tata Motors for their investment in the Nano project were found to be vague.  The Singur Act only provides for the refund of the amount paid by Tata Motors and the vendors to the state government for leasing the land.  It does not provide for the payment of any other amount of money for acquiring the Tata Motors’ land nor the principles for the determination of such an amount.  The High Court ordered that these provisions tantamount to ‘no compensation’ and struck down the related provisions.

The matter will come up for consideration in the Supreme Court next on October 15, 2012.


[i] According to Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, acquisition of land for ‘public purpose’ includes, among others: provision or planned development of village sites; provision of land for town or rural planning; the provision of land for planned development of land from public funds in pursuance of a scheme or policy of the Government; and the provision of land for a corporation owned or controlled by the State.

 

Land Acquisition: Public realm, private gain

September 8th, 2010 4 comments

One of the most politically contentious issues in recent times has been the government’s right to acquire land for ‘public purpose’.  Increasingly, farmers are refusing to part with their land without adequate compensation, the most recent example being the agitation in Uttar Pradesh over the acquisition of land for the Yamuna Express Highway.

Presently, land acquisition in India is governed by the Land Acquisition Act, an archaic law passed more than a century ago in 1894.  According to the Act, the government has the right to acquire private land without the consent of the land owners if the land is acquired for a “public purpose” project (such as development of towns and village sites, building of schools, hospitals and housing and state run corporations).  The land owners get only the current price value of the land as compensation.  The key provision that has triggered most of the discontent is the one that allows the government to acquire land for private companies if it is for a “public purpose” project.  This has led to conflict over issues of compensation, rehabilitation of displaced people and the type of land that is being acquired.

The UPA government introduced the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill in conjunction with the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill on December 6, 2007 in the Lok Sabha and referred them to the Standing Committee on Rural Development for scrutiny.  The Committee submitted its report on October 21, 2008 but the Bills lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha.  The government is planning to introduce revised versions of the Bills.  The following paragraphs discuss the lapsed Bills to give some idea of the government’s perspective on the issue while analysing the lacunae in the Bills.

The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 redefined “public purpose” to allow land acquisition only for defence purposes, infrastructure projects, or any project useful to the general public where 70% of the land had already been purchased from willing sellers through the free market.  It prohibited land acquisition for companies unless they had already purchased 70% of the required land.  The Bill also made it mandatory for the government to conduct a social impact assessment if land acquisition resulted in displacement of 400 families in the plains or 200 families in the hills or tribal areas.  The compensation was to be extended to tribals and individuals with tenancy rights under state laws.  The compensation was based on many factors such as market rates, the intended use of the land, and the value of standing crop.  A Land Acquisition Compensation Disputes Settlement Authority was to be established to adjudicate disputes.

The Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2007 sought to provide for benefits and compensation to people displaced by land acquisition or any other involuntary displacements.  The Bill created project-specific authorities to formulate, implement and monitor the rehabilitation process.  It also outlined minimum benefits for displaced families such as land, house, monetary compensation, skill training and preference for jobs.  A grievance redressal system was also provided for.

Although the Bills were a step in the right direction, many issues still remained unresolved.  Since the Land Acquisition Bill barred the civil courts from entertaining any disputes related to land acquisition, it was unclear whether there was a mechanism by which a person could challenge the qualification of a project as “public purpose”.  Unlike the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, the Bill did not specify the type of land that could be acquired (such as waste and barren lands).  The Bill made special provision for land taken in the case of ‘urgency’.  However, it did not define the term urgency, which could lead to confusion and misuse of the term.

The biggest loop-hole in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill was the use of non-binding language.  Take for example Clause 25, which stated that “The Government may, by notification, declare any area…as a resettlement area.” Furthermore, Clause 36(1) stated that land for land “shall be allotted…if Government land is available.”  The government could effectively get away with not providing many of the benefits listed in the Bill.  Also, most of the safeguards and benefits were limited to families affected by large-scale displacements (400 or more families in the plains and 200 or more families in the hills and tribal areas).  The benefits for affected families in case of smaller scale displacements were not clearly spelt out.  Lastly, the Bill stated that compensation to displaced families should be borne by the requiring body (body which needs the land for its projects).  Who would bear the expenditure of rehabilitation in case of natural disasters remained ambiguous.

If India is to attain economic prosperity, the government needs to strike a balance between the need for development and protecting the rights of people whose land is being acquired.

Kaushiki Sanyal

The article was published in Sahara Time (Issue dated September 4, 2010, page 36)