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SC Singur ‘public purpose’ signal

New Delhi, April 20: The Supreme Court today said taking over land even for a company could be for a “public purpose” under the land acquisition law, the observation coming at a hearing on Singur.

“Even if the state acquires land for a company, it could be for a public purpose,” a three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India said.

The comment was just an observation but should come as a shot in the arm for the Bengal government after prolonged protests over acquisition of farmland for a Nano factory drove the Tata small car project out of the state.

Several individuals, including some affected persons, and groups opposed to the takeover of fertile farmland for industry, had appealed against the acquisition, already upheld by Calcutta High Court.

State government counsel K.K. Venugopal opposed the appeals, saying only a few were against the takeover. The “disputed” area was only 6.825 acres, which was less than 0.7 per cent of the total land acquired, Venugopal said. “A very large number of people have accepted the compensation,” he added.

The counsel for some of the petitioners, Kalyan Bandopadhyay, said several affected persons had not got notice of the acquisition.

The bench, however, said that under the act, individuals need not be given notice of acquisition. “It is enough if a public notice has been issued through newspapers,” the bench said. When hundreds of people had filed objections to the acquisition, the bench added, one or two couldn’t claim they hadn’t got the notice.

Bandopadhyay said the acquisition — started in July 2006, nearly a year before a deal was signed with the Tatas — had been done in an “underhand” way. “This is not land acquisition for a public purpose but land acquisition for a company,” he alleged.

Chapter 7 of the act provides for compensation at the market rate by a company if it were to acquire land directly from farmers. But the acquisition by the state under Section 6 was at official rates, Bandopadhyay said, which was much lower than the market rate.

“Only a token amount coming from the exchequer (to pay for the land) would not make it acquisition for a public purpose,” he said, implying that the state had acted as a front for the Tatas. “Now even the company (Tata Motors) has gone.”

However, lawyers for the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation contested this. “Money has come from the WBIDC,” state counsel Venugopal claimed.

Altaf Ahmed and Pijush Kanti Roy, speaking for the WBIDC, said the Corporation could always co-opt the Tatas to use the land for “industrial purposes”.

The top court tentatively agreed with this view, but said it would hear arguments at length in the case only in August.

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