Singur case: SC verdict means farmers will get their land back but they will remain losers

(This article has been updated with Tata Motors' statement, more details and corrections.)

The much-awaited and discussed Singur land case has been settled with the Supreme Court on Wednesday asking the state government to return 997 acres of land to farmers, who are the original owners, in 12 weeks' time. The landmark verdict said the land acquisition by then Left government did not follow the rules laid by the Land Acquisition Act 1894, which has now been replaced by a new law in 2013.

The verdict, nonetheless, comes as a moral victory for chief minister Mamata Banerjee and a big jolt for the Left Front which had acquired the land in 2006, and the Tata group, for whom the land was acquired for the highly ambitious small-car project, the Nano. However, the biggest losers are the farmers for whom the land, which will be returned, is likely to remain uncultivable for a long period of time.

 Singur case: SC verdict means farmers will get their land back but they will remain losers

Mamata Banerjee in a PTI file photo

It was the Singur land agitation that had propelled Mamata into the political dominance in West Bengal. The agitation against the land acquisition by the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led Left government started with a few farmers expressing their unwillingness to part with their cultivable land for the industrial project. Mamata, who was then cashing in on every opportunity to create her own space in the Left-dominated political space of West Bengal, seized the chance to lead the agitation.

At a rally, she breathed fire challenging the government to acquire even an inch of land "without creating a river of blood". "Let them deploy a million-strong police force, there will be no retreat," she vowed.

The Left front government was projecting the deal with Tata Motors as its big victory. It was a key milestone that would have helped the Left, which had been ruling the state since 1977, ward off its industry-unfriendly image. As this article in The Economist in 2008 says, "The West Bengal government wanted the Nano plant both for the jobs it would bring and the message it would send."

But after the two-year-long agitation by farmers, lead by Mamata and strongly backed by many eminent activists and writers such as Mahashweta Devi, Aprna Sen and Medha Patkar, the Tata group was forced to pull out of the state and relocate the plant lock, stock and barrel to Sanand in Gujarat. The decision in one stroke resulted in the rise of two stars - then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as an industry-friendly politician and Mamata as a politician for the farmer and the farm land, an image until remained the monopoly of the Left.

Around 2,200 farmers were 'unwilling' to part with their land. They owned about 400 acres, as per the claim of Mamata (the government then said only 181 acres fell in the unwilling category). The other set of farmers, who were termed willing farmers, had accepted the compensation package of the government offered.

Soon after Mamata became the chief minister riding high on the wave of this and other agitation against industrial use of agricultural land, she enacted a law wresting the land from the Tatas. The company contested the claim.

According to Tata Motors, this case is still pending in the court. “The case in which the judgment was delivered today, related to the acquisition of land by the State Government, before it was leased to Tata Motors. Our case relating to Singur Act of 2011, is yet to be heard by the Supreme Court. We will study today’s judgment in detail before commenting further on the same,” said a statement from the company.

However, it remains to be seen whether this case any standing in the backdrop of the Wednesday's verdict.

After 10 years, when the Supreme Court has rendered the government's land acquisition null and void, which Mamata claims to be a vindication of her stance, there is an irony that is hard to escape.

Mamata, as chief minister of West Bengal now, is leaving no stone unturned to change her industry-unfriendly image. She is desperately taking steps to attract investments and industry into the state. Investor summits have become a regular yearly event. In fact, in an interview to The Economic Times on Tuesday (30 August 2016), state finance minister Amit Mitra claimed that under Mamata Bengal is again becoming a favourite investment address.

Here is a stock-taking to see who actually won and who lost:

For Mamata it is indeed a win: She fought for it and though with a 10-year delay, she has won. An elated Mamata said at a rally after the verdict: Now I can die in piece. According to reports, the government plans observe 2 September as Singur Day. The celebrations have only begun.

Huge loss for Tatas: Monetarily, according to the Tata Motors' annual report for 2015-16, capital work-in-progress as of 31 March 2014, including building under construction at Singur, was Rs 309.88 crore. The management has in 2014-15 made a provision for carrying capital cost of buildings at Singur amounting to Rs 309.88 crore. So this amount has been provided for.

However, in a petition in the Calcutta High Court, in 2011, the company had claimed that the losses would amount to Rs 1,400 crore. "The petitioners' losses are around Rs 1,400 crore which includes the investment on the ground which is sought to be taken over by the government and various costs and losses such as, value of land rights and goodwill, transportation, mothballing the entire plant which needed about more than 3,300 large trucks to carry the materials, the rehabilitation and resettlement of various, vendors, cost of retaining the land till date and the security thereof as compensation," this report in The Telegraph quotes from Tata Motors' petition in the high court.

This apart, Ratan Tata, then chairman and now chairman emeritus of Tata Sons, said in 2014 that shifting the plant from Singur was a prudent move in hindsight but gave the group a high negative cost. “When we created the Nano, there was a lot of global excitement that a car could be offered at a price of $2,500 and three lakh orders with a waiting period of two years was induced. But it took another year because of the shift and there was a general disbelief generated about the car, while competitors got a chance to start bad—mouthing the Nano. By that time, much of the excitement was lost,” he said at a function in Kolkata.

After 10 long years, the Nano car continues to be a failure. Some of the brand experts even suggested that it should be killed. Tata himself regretted the cheap-car tag that eventually resulted in its downfall. For the group, the whole effort seems to be a waste of time and energy.

Death knell for the Left Front: As this article points out in The Hindu BusinessLine points out, the verdict could well be the proverbial last nail. As such the front has already been struggling to come to terms with the new political realities of cast and capital. The verdict that indicts the Left government is  likely to shatter the front, particularly the CPI(M), at least in West Bengal. Interestingly, it has come at a time when the Left Front in Kerala led by the CPI(M) is now making all bids to attract industry and investments. One thing to watch out for will be whether the verdict will have any impact on Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's industry outlook.

Farmers could be the biggest losers: The simple reason is that they may have lost their land almost permanently despite the court order to return it. This is because the company had started construction of the plant in 2007. Media reports indicate that the construction that has taken place may have already rendered the land uncultivable for a long period of time. As Joydeb Das, an 'unwilling farmer' who was part of the agitation, says in this Business Standard report, "Can I till the land if I get it back? It's filled with fly ash. It will take five years to make it suitable for agriculture. That is possible only if the state compensates me for the loss."

For those who were willing to give up the land, there are neither jobs, which they were promised of, nor is the land that they are going to get back cultivable. As per the verdict, the land will have to be returned to all the farmers - willing and unwilling. While the unwilling farmers will get compensation for their losses, the willing ones farmers who had given away land by accepting the money offered by then government need not give the compensation back. However, the second lot are the most disappointed, as per this report in the Mint newspaper on Thursday (1 September 2016).

To be fair, the Mamata government has been doling out incentives for the farmers who stood with her during the agitation. But now that the verdict is out, will the state government continue the doles? If not, how are these farmers going to survive?

Practically, the state government has an Herculian task of redistributing the land and identifying who were the willing and unwilling lot. s Rabindranath Bhattacharya, MLA, Singur, has told the Business Standard that the government may still invite industrialists including the Tatas to set up projects in the land that have become unusable. But it remains to be seen when this will materialise.

In short, while Mamata will celebrate her victory and the Left parties lick their wound, the real losers could turn out to be the farmers - both 'willing' and 'unwilling'.

With inputs from Kishor Kadam

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Updated Date: Sep 01, 2016 08:25:19 IST