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Singur land-return suggestion

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By OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 11.07.13
  •  

New Delhi, July 10: The Supreme Court today asked Tata Motors to consider surrendering its rights over the Singur land because the Nano plant had already been shifted to Gujarat and “agriculturists must survive”.

The court’s suggestion was described as a “moral victory” by a “very happy” chief minister Mamata Banerjee on the eve of the panchayat elections. The Tatas said they would explore possible options and inform the court at the next hearing on August 13.

Today, the court did not go into the question of the validity of the Singur land acquisition act but added that the bench “still has the power to say (whether) the acquisition is justified or not”.

The Singur land law was upheld by a single bench of Calcutta High Court but quashd by a higher division bench, following which the Mamata Banerjee government had approached the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court bench of Justices H.L. Dattu and Dipak Misra said it would also seek an affidavit from the state that the land would be returned to the original owners and would not be used for any other purpose.

Portions of the land have already been built upon and several farmers have said resumption of cultivation there is impractical.

Although the apex court did not pass any formal order today, two options are left. If the Tatas agree to the proposal to return the land, the court can ask the two parties to work out the modalities and it has the power to pass any order to ensure that the case is closed.

If the Tatas do not agree to the suggestion, the court can hear the case on its merit. The bench will then hear the arguments of the Bengal government and Tata Motors.

The apex court made the oral suggestion after Gopal Jain, the counsel for Tata Motors, said he wanted to challenge the Singur land act brought in by the Mamata government. The state law had mentioned that the Singur project was “abandoned” — a choice of phrase the Tatas had objected to, saying that a political agitation had driven them out.

During the hearings in other courts earlier, the Tatas had referred to the modalities of calculating compensation — an indication that the company was willing to consider returning the land if their concerns are addressed.

However, the door was left ajar last year when Ratan Tata fielded a question last year on the possibility of keeping Singur in the group’s picture. “Need not be Tata Motors. We have until the court decides this, the plant is still there. Whether it is Tata Motors or something else,” Tata, then the group chairman and now chairman emeritus, had told PTI.

Cyrus Mistry, who succeeded Ratan Tata as group chairman, is scheduled to visit Calcutta on Monday to attend the annual general meeting of a Tata company.

During the course of the hearing today, the Bengal government counsel Avijit Bhattacharya as well as solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran, appearing for the Union government, said the state would compensate the Tatas with interest set by the bench.

When the proceedings commenced, the senior lawyers for the Bengal government, Rakesh Diwedi and K.K. Venugopal, were scheduled to advance arguments.

However, the bench said it wanted to raise some questions. The bench asked Tata Motors’ counsel Jain why the company was keen on continuing with the litigation when it had already moved out of Bengal.

“The question is… the land was given for a particular purpose for you to establish an industry for producing a car. But you cannot say that ‘the acquisition was for my purpose and that I have become the owner of the land even though the project has not been set up’,” said Justice Dattu, heading the bench.

Jain said although the company had moved out of the state, it had a 90-year lease. “We have a lease for 90 years and we had paid compensation to the land owners,” he said.

Justice Dattu said: “But you still can’t say you have a right over the land.”

Justice Misra intervened to say that “there is a difference between acquisition for a public purpose and acquisitions for a private company. The purpose changes when it is acquired for a company. Can you still say ‘I have become the owner’?”

The counsel did not reply.

The bench said: “As Tata Motors, you can’t say you are the owner of the land. The avowed purpose is to give the land back to the owners… why are you coming in the way? You, as a lessee, will be given compensation with interest. We will ask the state government to give back the land to the farmers and file an affidavit to the effect.”

It added: “At the end of the day, the agriculturists must survive. The government wants to give back the land. Since you are not doing business, you people can’t expect profits. We will ask the state government to say on an affidavit that A, B, C farmers have been given back the land. In the interest of justice, we want to do it. We don’t want to shirk or refuse our responsibility.”

The court said the country did not have much farmland. “At the end of the day, we also feel the government must give back the land from whom it was acquired. That will serve the whole purpose. We don’t have much agricultural land in the country. You have moved out. Can you still say that you are in pursuit of the land? Court still has the power to say the acquisition is justified or not. Look, you have moved out for various reasons. For various reasons, you have moved out…. Let the agriculturists keep their land.”

Then Jain said that since Harish Salve, the senior counsel appearing for Tata Motors, was not present, he was unable to give any assurance.

The court said even if Salve was present, it would have given the same suggestion.

“Please ask Mr Salve to seek instructions (from the company). With his efforts, he will be in a better position to give quietus to the matter,” the court said, posting the matter for further hearing on August 13.

In June 2012, the division bench of Calcutta High Court had said the return of land to unwilling owners in Singur could not be treated as “public purpose”. The high court had previously held that the acquisition of land for the Nano plant would qualify for such a description — an appeal against which is now pending in Supreme Court.

Counsel Gopal Jain told The Telegraph later that the company had basically sought to challenge the validity of the act passed by the Mamata government. “We said we will get back to the court after seeking instructions from the company on the suggestions made by the court,” he added.

Referring to the court’s suggestion, Mamata, while leaving Writers’ Buildings in the afternoon, said: “I am very happy. Even agriculture is an industry. We love both industry and agriculture. This is a moral victory for us. I think this will inspire similar movements worldwide… let the verdict come.”

A Tata Motors’ spokesperson said: “The Supreme Court is exploring a holistic solution to the issue. The apex court has asked us to consider alternate use of the Singur industrial land that is with us. We will certainly explore the possible options and inform the court on the next hearing. The apex court has mentioned that compensation will be paid if we cannot use the land and return it, and the counsel for the state agreed to the same. We will certainly consider this option too.”