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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016

On SC’s Singur Verdict, LEMOA

Monday 5 September 2016, by SC


As we go to press, news has just come that the Supreme Court has scrapped the acquisition of nearly 1000 acres of multi-crop land in West Bengal’s Singur for the Tata Motors’ Nano car project. Thus the eight-year-long legal battle between the company and the West Bengal Government run by the Trinamul Congress has been brought to an end.

The Apex Court, in its judgment, has directed the State Government to take possession of the land and redistribute it to the original owners, a sizeable number of whom are small and marginal farmers. The land was allotted by the erstwhile CPI-M-led Left Front Government to the Tata Motors for the company’s aborted project. The SC declared the “entire acquisition process” as “illegal”.

The development in Singur (which took place in 2006), followed by a similar happening in Nandigram, triggered widespread protests in the State with the TMC chief, Mamata Banerjee, spearheading the agitation; she also sat on a dharna and led a 26-day hunger strike on the issue in December 2006 insisting that the project be scrapped.

Reacting to the verdict, delivered by a two-judge Bench, State CM Mamata Banerjee said: “Despite electoral victories, I had only one job left—to return the land to the farmers of Singur. Now I can die in peace.” She told journalists at the State Secretariat that she salutes the spirit of the farmers of Singur who faced all odds but did not bow down to injustice. In her own words: “This is a landmark victory for me.”

She reaffirmed her policy that agricultural land should not be forcibly acquired from the farmers and pointed out that the LF Government’s acquisition of land in Singur by coercion led to a “historical suicide”. She promised to abide by the SC decision and return the land to the farmers of Singur.

Meanwhile the Singur farmers erupted in jubilation on hearing the news of the SC verdict; they smeared green abir on their faces, blew conch shells and burst into spontaneous slogans holding photographs of the CM and shouting: “Mamata Banerjee Zindabad”.

The two judges—Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra—agreed to quash the acquisition process and return the land to thousands of farmers and cultivators but for different reasons. It may be recalled that while on September 28, 2011 the Calcutta High Court’s single-judge Bench had upheld the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 following the passage of the Bill on the issue in the West Bengal Assembly on June 14, 2011, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court had on June 22, 2012 struck down the Bills on an appeal by the Tata Motors. However, today (that is, on August 31, 2016) the SC has set aside the Calcutta HC’s January 18, 2008 order upholding the Singur land acquisition (after which the farmers and NGOs had moved the SC challenging the HC order).

At the other end the CPI-M’s State leadership has struck a note different from its defiant attitude in the past. Its West Bengal unit’s Secretary, Surya Kanta Mishra, ruled out any apology for the land acquisition from the side of his party, saying: “This is not an issue of tendering an apology. We have said it clearly that land cannot be acquired against the wishes of the farmers.” This was quite at variance with the tone adopted by the former CM, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, when the Singur land was taken by the government to be handed over to the Tata Motors. (Even posters had then been put up by the ruling CPI-M offering “red salutes” to the Tatas for the Nano plant.)

Mishra also claimed that the land acquisition was done as per the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. He added: “We were never opposed to returning the land. But it should be returned by following the constitutional norms and laws.... Now the question will be how will the land be returned and in what condition?”

Today’s judgment of the Apex Court doubtless further reinforces the position of CM Mamata Banerjee in the State. This the Opposition parties have to acknowledge regardless of their approach to the State Government.

While the SC verdict on Singur is highly significant, on the bilateral Indo-US front the Modi Government signing the ‘Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement’ (LEMOA) with the US is exceptionally noteworthy. As The Hindu editorially explains, “The agreement, which comes after more than a decade of negotiations, puts an automatic approvals process in place for the two militaries to share each other’s bases for various operations.”

While Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been at pains to explain in Washington that the LEMOA “doesn’t have anything to do with the setting up of a base”, the Opposition parties are not convinced. The Congress feels it would cause “serious misgivings, unless explained and justified, among India’s traditional partners and time-tested allies, regionally and globally” and has thus called upon South Block to come up with a credible explanation; the CPI-M, on its part, opines that with the signing of the LEMOA “India has acquired the formal status of a military ally of the United States”. Indeed New Delhi’s non-aligned character is under the threat of being compromised as a consequence of this accord. At least that is what large sections of our countrymen think. It is for the government to convincingly dispel such thinking.

August 31 S.C.

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