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Relief for Tata as SC orders Mamata not to return land

Jun 29, 2011

The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the West Bengal not to return Singur land to 'unwilling' farmers, in what can be seen as some relief for Tata Motors which had leased the land from the previous Marxist government for its doomed Nano factory.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who made Singur her main poll plank, had recently facilitated the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 by which the government can take possession of the land and give it back to the original owners.

The last government had acquired 1,000 acres for the Nano project. A large chunk of farmers -- those who own around 400 acres -- held that the Left government forcibly took their land to give it to the Tatas. “As an interim order, we direct the state government not to hand over or return land to farmers concerned until further order passed by the Calcutta High Court,” a vacation Bench comprising justices P Sathasivam an A K Patnaik said. The Bench said it was making it clear that this was an “interim arrangement” and it was not expressing any opinion on the merits of the case.

The judges said they were passing a limited interim order and asking the High Court to proceed with the main matter in which the Tatas have challenged the new law enacted by the Mamata Banerjee government for taking possession of land and distributing it to farmers who were the original owners. However, the Bench said since the main issues were pending before the High Court, it was not inclined to go into them.

“We are not inclined to interfere at this stage on the main issues pending before the high court,” it said. The Bench observed it was granting interim protection as senior counsel P P Rao, appearing for the state government, said the possession of land will remain in the hands of state government till the High Court decides the issues. During the proceedings, the Bench observed it is not a question of political issues but a question of rights. Terming the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 as a “colourable exercise of legislation”, the Tatas had moved the Supreme Court Tuesday, seeking an interim stay on the distribution of land to so-called “unwilling farmers” in Singur. Tatas filed the appeals against the orders of the High Court which rejected its plea to restrain the state government from taking back possession and distribution of land to farmers.

Tata Motors had filed separate petitions challenging two Calcutta High Court orders dated June 23 and June 27. On June 23, the High Court had refused to entertain the company's plea seeking directions to restrain the state government from taking possession of the 1,000 acres. The company also filed another plea in the High Court on June 27, unsuccessfully challenging the Act. In its appeal, the Tatas said the law had been enacted in haste, and was in “complete violation of basic principles in our Constitution”.

A vacation Bench of Justices P Sathasivam and A K Patnaik agreed to take up the matter for a detailed hearing on Wednesday. Under the new law, the Mamata Banerjee government has taken back 400 acres of land with Tata Motors in Singur, and intends to return it to their original owners. The Tatas pleaded that the repossession of the land, carried out using police force, is “illegal”, and there has been “vandalism” and “looting” at the erstwhile Nano factory site. Counsel for Tatas submitted that the company was seeking a direction to restrain the state government from creating any third-party interest on the disputed land.

On a day the Tata Motors approached the Supreme Court seeking an interim stay on the return of land to farmers in Singur, the district administration of Hooghly was completing the formalities for giving possession of land to the first batch of “unwilling farmers” in Singur on Wednesday.

The land documents of at least 12 farmers were scrutinised and found to be authentic and they were to be handed over their land by the administration on Wednesday. The land for these 12 farmers has already been identified by government surveyors. Meanwhile, replying to the Tata Motors petition challenging the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, the state government on Tuesday told the Calcutta High Court said it had not done any wrong by introducing the new Act. The government said it was not against the Tatas but in favour of farmers.

Tata Motors counsel Samaraditya Pal had raised the point that there was a conflict between the new Act and the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Countering the argument, government counsel Ashoke Banerjee said the TMC had declared in its election manifesto that land would be returned to unwilling farmers and after coming to power, the party is acting on its promise.