Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bengal verdict on Singur


Bengal verdict on Singur

At the present juncture, economic growth in West Bengal cannot do without industrialisation, and if the latter has to be pursued at the expense of marginal agricultural activity, there is no alternative but to do so.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

Had the Calcutta High Court verdict on the Singur land acquisition matter gone some other way than the one in fact sculpted by the Judges concerned, it would have been construed as a setback for the Left Front Government’s policy on industrialisation in West Bengal. As it happened, the court was very clear in its view that the State had done nothing improper in terms of the existing law of the land in acquiring land at Singur, a pronouncement which cannot but be inte rpreted as a shot in the arm for the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government’s declared policy of balanced economic growth for the State depending on both industry and agriculture.

To quote the verdict, which is likely to be challenged in the higher court, the Calcutta division Bench said (as reported): “There was no colourable exercise of power by the Government during acquisition of this land. Landowners who are not satisfied with the compensation amount may move the land acquisition collector”. Commenting on the judgment, the State Advocate-General said: “The Judges have observed that the land acquisition is valid and just. The court also upheld that the acquisition was for a public purpose. It was a bona fide exercise of power on the part of the Government”.

For a public cause

Elucidating this last point, the Advocate-General added that one of the principal criteria for deciding whether the land acquisition exercise was geared to a public purpose or not was whether the compensation offered for the land to be acquired was paid by the State exchequer or whether it was funded by a private party. In Singur, the Advocate-General said, since the compensation was paid by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, a State agency, the court had no difficulty in declaring the objective of the land acquisition being for a public purpose.

The matter will now move to the Supreme Court and, as a matter of course, the West Bengal Government is confident that the higher court will agree with the view taken by the Calcutta High Court. It is the fervent hope of all those who have the long-term economic interest of West Bengal at heart that the Supreme Court will not disagree with the High Court’s view, which could have the effect of delaying the commissioning of the Tata car plant coming up at Singur. But, then, the law will take its own course, and only time will reveal whether the High Court’s pronouncement will pass the scrutiny of the higher court.

As some watchers of the legal scene have observed, an appeal in the higher court could turn out to be of more than ordinary interest in view of the stand taken by the Supreme Court in October last year on a land acquisition matter pertaining to Punjab. In that instance too, villagers had gone to court against the State government’s role in acquiring land for a company. The Punjab and Haryana High Court had “upheld the State Government’s land acquisition drive”, which the Supreme Court set aside. As reported, the Supreme Court ruled: “The State is obligated to issue a notification clearly stating whether the acquisition is for a public purpose or for a company. A declaration is to be made either for a public purpose or for a company. It cannot be both.” The Court also said (as reported) that, “when properties of citizens are being compulsorily acquired by a State in exercise of its power, the existence of public purpose and payment of compensation are principal requisites”.

SC’s ruling in Punjab case

Since the issue of the quality of cropland acquired for the Singur project has always been an important part of the controversy, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Punjab case could be even more interesting. On this specific point, the ruling said (as reported) that ‘“good agricultural land’ should not be acquired for setting up a factory or for any other corporate purpose. Good agricultural land would mean ‘any land with average productivity, including gardens and groves’”. The ruling also said (as reported) that, in terms of Rule 4 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, “the State is also required to ensure that no other suitable land was available for acquisition and should try to acquire barren or waste land”, and that the Punjab Government “has not complied with the Rule 4”.

These are complex legal points which will have to be argued threadbare by counsel of both sides before the Supreme Court. But as far as the average citizen of West Bengal is concerned, it will be a great setback if the Tata car project is now stalled in any way, not only because of the intrinsic worth of the specific project to West Bengal’s corpus of economic activity (both current and future through the medium of attraction of investments into the State) but also because of the symbolic significance of the project to the argument that industrialisation must play an equally important role as agriculture if the State is to move ahead economically.

As the former Chief Minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, has put it, “The High Court has given (a) verdict in favour of industrialisation. This will help industrialisation speed up”. Using the same yardstick, the Chief Minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, should feel comfortable because, at the very least, work on the Singur project can now proceed smoothly with the Damocles Sword of an unfavourable High Court judgement being removed. The sense of relief was clear in his post-verdict appeal to people living in Singur and adjoining areas, “irrespective of party affiliation”, to help in the “process of development”.

Economic growth

Admittedly, the High Court’s verdict has nothing to do with support for a policy of industrialisation, as Mr Basu has suggested. But what probably the State’s elder politician meant to say was that, at the present juncture, economic growth in West Bengal cannot do without industrialisation, and if the latter has to be pursued at the expense of marginal agricultural activity, there is no alternative but to do so. Agriculture and industry must form the twin pillars of any strategic economic growth policy for the State. Mr Basu has said so, as has Mr Bhattacharjee, not to mention the West Bengal Industry Ministry, Mr Nirupam Sen. Even the late Anil Biswas once had occasion to say (October 21, 2005) that industrialisation was the need of the hour in the State whatever the “colour” of the investment involved.