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SC questioning ‘public purpose’ shows Singur ruling is critical

analysis Updated: Sep 15, 2016 15:05 IST

Trinamool leaders celebrate Singur Day in Kolkata,(Ashok Nath Dey/HT File Photo)

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the Singur case is a victory for the rule of law, and the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens. In quashing the illegal acquisition of land by the West Bengal government and mandating its return, the SC has signalled a departure from its hitherto deferential review of “public purpose” and the “procedure” for forcible land acquisition.

In 2006, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) forcibly acquired nearly 1,000 acres of land in Singur for Tata Motors’ Nano car project. Such forcible acquisitions were permissible under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for a “public purpose” and upon “payment of compensation”, provided the “procedure” prescribed under the Act was followed. By a 1984 amendment to the 1894 Act, land could be acquired on behalf of a company, provided a different procedure prescribed in Part VII of the Act was followed.

Read: SC scraps Singur land deal for Nano plant, asks Bengal govt to take possession

The Singur land losers were using the land for cultivation and agro-processing industries. Though they objected to the acquisitions, the government ignored them. The land losers challenged the acquisition before the high court. While their appeals were pending, the WBIDC took possession of the land, compensated those who were willing and displaced the unwilling. This led to protests.

Justices V Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra disagreed on whether the acquisition for Tata Motors was done for a “public purpose” under Part II of the Act, or “for a company” under Part VII of the Act. But they agreed that whichever procedure was applicable, the government did not follow it. The court judges found “no application of mind” in the acquisition process, labelling the collector’s enquiry into the land losers’ objections a “farce and an eyewash”.

Read: Grocers extending credit to Singur farmers once more

The Singur case is not atypical. A study by the Centre for Policy Research of all land acquisition cases decided by the SC between 1950 and 2015 found that almost 40% of the cases involved a challenge to the validity of the procedure whereby land was acquired. In almost four out of 10 of the challenged cases, both the high court and the SC invalidated the acquisition for non-compliance with the existing procedures.

However, what makes the Singur judgment distinctive is that in the past, the SC has rarely questioned the government’s declaration of “public purpose”, except to note that the acquisition must support the “general” as opposed to “individual” interest. Indeed, in the data set of 1,369 cases, the SC invalidated the government’s finding of public purpose in only 13 cases.

Read: Restoration of Singur land will take a long time, say experts

In a departure from existing precedent, Justice Gowda held that where there was no scheme of industrial development fulfilling public need, nor was the cost of acquisition serviced by public revenue, acquisition of land by the government on behalf of a company did not satisfy the requirement of “public purpose” under the 1894 Act. Justice Mishra disagreed with this finding on law and facts.

Read: Agriculture or industry? Singur farmers divided

Since Singur and in part because of it, the 1894 Act was repealed and replaced by the Land Acquisition Act, 2013. The 2013 Act mandates that any acquisition of land involving a company must have prior consent of 80% of the affected families as a prerequisite for acquisition.

Attempts by the Centre to amend this provision through ordinance failed last year. But several state legislatures have amended the 2013 Act to circumvent this provision. In this context, and especially for pending cases under the 1894 Act, Justice Gowda at least, has indicated that the Supreme Court will no longer defer, but strictly scrutinise whether any governmental acquisition of land for a company is indeed for a public purpose.

Namita Wahi is Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal.