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Singur: Can Mamata offer the best deal to farmers?

Last updated on: September 23, 2016 20:16 IST

The acquisition process was bad in law but the reconversion of land for agriculture may be another mistake. Is there a way out, asks Ashok K Lahiri.

Will the hands of the clock be put back in Singur in West Bengal?

Will the blue and white factory sheds be dismantled, kilometres of roads dug up, bitumen, tonnes of fly-ash and concrete used for roads and land-fill removed to return the land for agricultural purposes?

Will the suffering by the owners and cultivators, and also of the industrial enterprises – not only Tata Motors, but also quite a few vendors – from 2006 be all in vain? 

The Supreme Court in its judgment of August 31 has declared the acquisition of land in Singur by the West Bengal government in 2006 as illegal and void.

It has given 10 weeks to the state government to survey and identify the mouzas of lands acquired, and 12 weeks for possession of the lands to be restored to the landowners/cultivators.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court has stated: “In this day and age of fast paced development, it is completely understandable for the state government to want to acquire lands to set up industrial units.”

What it has rightly insisted on is the scrupulous observance of the relevant Act and rules and protecting the interests of the weakest sections.

The judgment is not about whether the acquisition was justified or not, it is about how it was done.

It is extremely doubtful if returning the land to the erstwhile owners/cultivators as individual parcels fit for agricultural purposes again is the best solution to the injustices involved in acquisition.

Such returns will involve a destruction of value. The cost involved in reconversion for agriculture will be substantial. It will be a double whammy - the cost incurred in preparing the land for industry plus the cost of reconverting it for agriculture.

With a rising population, migration from rural areas and agriculture, in most parts of the country, there is a clamour for changing land-use from agriculture to commercial, residential or industrial.

There are allegations of influential people buying agricultural land, getting the land-use changed through their contacts and making enormous profits.

Almost a 1,000 acres or over four square km of consolidated land, with plans for factory buildings including utilities such as roads, water line, sewage line, power lines, drainage and effluent treatment plants is a rare thing in densely populated West Bengal. It already exists on the ground in Singur and can command a good price.

Returning the land only for agricultural use will be a rare case of land devaluation from a change of land-use from industry to agriculture.

Why should the poor farmers suffer twice?

First, from an acquisition which was a “colourable exercise in power”, and then from a destruction of value that already exists?

The acquisition process was bad in law. Reconversion for agriculture may be another mistake, and two wrongs do not make a right.

Is there a way of transferring the value already created through consolidation and change of land use to the poor farmers?

With the Supreme Court judgment, the erstwhile owners/cultivators must have the option of getting back their land.

They can retain the compensation already paid in lieu of the losses suffered due to the deprivation of occupation and enjoyment of their land for the last 10 years.

How about giving them an option of either having the land back or becoming a part-owner of a valuable industrial estate in proportion to the land that they owned - both, without any payment?

In fact, the option of part-ownership of an industrial estate can even involve a sweetening clause — the state government may consider paying out a part of the cost that it would incur in restoring the land for agricultural use.

Two issues are paramount in this context. 

First, can the owners/cultivators be organised to agree to voluntarily contribute their land to a jointly-owned industrial estate in Singur?

Given the Supreme Court judgment, this voluntary agreement is important because they have the right to get their land back.

Organising the farmers will not be easy. But, it has been done at least once before in another part of the country.

In Magarpatta near Pune, Maharashtra, 120 farmers’ families got together in the mid-nineties and did much more than what their counterparts may have to do in Singur.

They built a township over 600 acres of land starting from scratch.

They pooled their land into a development company, accepted proportionate shareholding, got their scheme sanctioned by the Maharashtra government, took bank loans, and executed the project. 

Second, is the question of time. Time has been of the essence in Singur since 2006.

Tata Motors wanted to commence production of the Nano in 2008.

Thus, it started to develop the land as soon as it was handed over in January 2007, and continued until it had to stop because of protests, blockades and violence.

By end-September 2008, it decided to shift machinery and equipment to Sanand in Gujarat.  

The new government, which came to power in May 2011, had campaigned against the compulsory land acquisition in Singur and promised to return the land to the erstwhile landowners/cultivators.

It was in a hurry to return the land and right on the first day in office announced that 400 acres of acquired land would be returned to former owners/cultivators, who had been unwilling to part with their land.

An ordinance was promulgated for this purpose, but struck down by the court.

The Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 passed on June 20, 2011, also could not withstand a legal challenge. 

This is the third time that the clock is ticking in Singur.  Twelve weeks is not much time for restoring land developed for industry.

The challenge of organising the owners/cultivators for joint-ownership in an industrial estate in 12 weeks is also a formidable one.

But meeting this challenge is the only way of preventing the hands of the clock going back in Singur.

Can Mamata Banerjee and her popular party rise up to the challenge?

The chief minister had promised that all land-losers would get the same plot of land that they owned before the acquisition.

Can she give them more than what she had promised?

The state government reportedly wants to make the Singur story a part of school textbooks.

A modern industrial estate in Singur jointly owned by the former owners/cultivators will be a spectacular story of development for young students.

The writer is former Chief Economic Adviser.

Photograph: Reuters

Ashok K Lahiri