Singur Land Grab for 'Public Purpose'?

"Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law" - Oliver Goldsmith

Much before Marx's inference that in a class-based society justice can only be in the interests of the class in power, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in the 18th Century that law was a shot in the arm of the rich to 'grind' the poor. Little wonder, Reuters wired a story gleefully, featured in the Guardian of London, stating that an Indian court "threw out a slew of complaints against a factory to build the world's cheapest car, saying there was no anomaly in the acquisition of land for the project by Tata Motors." The division bench of the High Court of Calcutta comprising Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghosh said the acquisition of 997.11 acres of land at Singur was made following all proper methodology and the process was quite legal. In other words, the 217-page judgment held the acquisition was in 'public purpose', according to Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, thus rejecting about half a dozen of public interest litigations which challenged the acquisition as improper.

The perception that $2500 Tata Nano cars, scheduled to roll out from the Singur plant, is for public purpose is questionable. The 1985 Amendment to the 1894 Act, defining "Public Purpose" for land acquisition, lists inter alia educational institutions or schemes such as housing, health or slum clearance, apart from the projects for rural planning or formation of sites. Furthermore, the term, 'appropriate Government', here means the Central Government if the purpose for acquisition is for the Union Government requirement and for other purposes it is the State Government. Local authorities, societies registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 and co-operative societies established under the Co-operative Societies Act can also acquire the land for developmental activities through the government, as per Gazette subsequent notifications extending the Act to other categories. Acquisition by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation Ltd, a state government undertaking, was in order, according to the Act, but how transfer of the same to a private corporate entity serves public interest or purpose, especially on moral or ethical grounds, remains questionable.

Former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, Chittatosh Mookerjee, at a seminar in early 2007, pointed out another flaw in the acquisition. The authority, he said, did not implement the provision that after receiving the objections, the authority will have to hold an enquiry into the actual extent of land proposed to be acquired and the value of the land, nor did it make any assessment before acquisition, under Sections, 8, 9 and 11 of the Act. This was essential as over two-thirds of land acquired in the early 1950s for the Hindustan Motors at Konnagar were left unused for about five decades. The Left Front Government amended laws to enable the Birlas to sell the land on the plea of meeting workers' dues.

It seems the judges of Calcutta HC given the Singur plant the “public purpose” certificate on the pretext that it would generate "employment and development" in the whole area. This is a travesty of reality, about the automobile industry and Tata Motors in general and the Singur factory in particular.

At Singur, the Tatas were gifted 997.11 acres of land; for a similar factory at the SIDCUL industrial estate at Rudrapur, Uttarakhand, the Tatas have aquired another 100 acres, also reportedly for the manufacture of the Nano. Leave aside the propriety of terming the Nano 'public purpose'; let us ask, why does such a small care require such huge tracts of land - nearly 2000 acres? The Premier Automobiles/Fiat used to have its car plant at Kurla on just 53 acres. The erstwhile Standard Motors unit in Maraimalai Nagar/Vandalur in Chennai was located in just 58 acres. Ford Motors (India) has now purchased that plant and is producing cars like Ikon and Fiesta on just a part of that 58 acre plot. The original Gurgaon plant of Maruti-Suzuki was on 282.56 acres while its new Manesar facility acquired by the Suzuki is on 560 acres. The Gurgaon plant produces 3.5 lakh cars per annum but Manesar with double the land size is expected to produce only 1 lakh cars, and the ultimate installed capacity of both these Maruti-Suzuki plants is 9.5 lakh cars. Tata Motors would be producing 1 lakh cars initially and the proposed installed capacity of both the Singur and Rudrapur plants is just 3.5 lakh cars; with about one-third of Maruti-Suzuki’s capacity, why does Tata need three times as much land? Exactly what is the noble 'public purpose' to which Tata will put this fertile land?

The answer is fairly predictable. The Tatas are into real estate in a big way through Tata Realty with about Rs. 4000 crore capital fund, apart from Telcon, manufacturing construction machinery and equipment in collaboration with the Jaqpanese Hitachi and Tata Construction and Projects, which is mainly involved in the construction of industrial and infrastructural projects. All these apart, Tata Housing Development Company is developing IT Parks in Bangalore and in the IT Corridor in Chennai also it is expected to promote a massive township around a new complex for TCS. The size of land acquired at Singur, larger than that of any car plant, makes sense only in this backdrop. In what way can such elite real estate 'development' be in 'public purpose', especially when it is replacing fertile land that was producing three crops and sustaining the livelihood of some 10, 000 people?

And what about the claim of providing 'employment'? While uprooting thousands, the Tata Motors factory is not expected to generate direct employment for even 1000. Even Maruti-Suzuki with three times the ultimate production target of Tata Motors, has employed just around 3500 contract labourers in addition to 1500 total permanent staff, including regular workers and management staff. Ford Motors in Chennai has just 360 permanent workers on its rolls. No modern car production unit can have employment in thousands, thanks to the modern automated technology, and this is the source of crisis for all global auto majors.

Tata has claimed to have provided 'training' for 6-9 months to some 400-odd local youth of Singur at some ITIs. We all know it takes at least 2 years' training to pass as a skilled machinist/welder/auto worker; clearly, these youth would end up as unskilled or semi-skilled helpers. Further, there is no assurance that Tata will actually employ them in its car plant.

Bhumibarta, mouthpiece of the West Bengal Land and Land Reforms Officers' Association, carried an article by Amar Chattopadhyay, an expert on matters pertaining to land and land laws, last year. He referred to Para 23 of a circular (1701-LA, dated 6 June 2006) by the Land & Land Revenue Department captioned 'Possession only after payment' – "Along with and as soon as award money is paid in connection with any land acquired, the possession of such land shall be immediately handed over to the requiring body and the possession of the acquired land to the requiring body shall be a continuous process and completed within 15 days after payment of award money". Even today, compensation has not been received for over 300 acres of land, acquired for the Tatas.

Let us not speculate about the fate of appeal which is likely to be lodged with the Supreme Court. The Earl of Chatham, William Pitt, a contemporary of Goldsmith, in his speech on the Wilkes case, quipped: "Where laws end, tyranny begins".

Sankar Ray


“Public Purpose” and "Development"?!

CPM leader made 'personal gains' from Singur land: CBI

(20 Sep 2007, PTI)

NEW DELHI: Senior CPM leader Suhrid Baran Dutta, chargesheeted in the Tapsi Malik murder at Singur, was allegedly involved in infrastructure development work of the Tata Motors' small car project in West Bengal for "personal gains", a CBI probe has found.

"There is evidence to indicate that accused Suhrid Baran Dutta was involved in the infrastructural development work including selection of contractors for personal gain," the 17-page chargesheet filed by CBI in the court of Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate of Chandannagar in West Bengal alleged.

Dutta, along with another co-accused Debu Malik, have been chargesheeted by CBI for allegedly entering into a criminal conspiracy and murdering Tapsi, who was leading the Trinamool Congress-led agitation against acquisition of land in Singur by the state government for setting up the Tata car project.

The CBI quoted two employees of Kalimata Electric, which was given the task of installation of electric lines in the acquired land, saying they had paid Rs 1.58 lakh to Dutta in cash, who had promised them that the money would be used for purchasing electric poles.

"But investigations has disclosed that the electric poles were supplied by another contractor Ashim Barik" who had made the payment, the CBI alleged and claimed that there was a vested interest of Dutta, at present in judicial custody, in selecting contractors for Singur.


“Jobs for Locals”!

Govt breaks job pledge, gets HC rap

4 Aug 2007, TNN

KOLKATA: Land-losers in the state have the judiciary on their side. Calcutta High Court made it clear on Friday that it wouldn’t allow the government to break its promise to those from which it took land for industrial purposes.

The HC issued a criminal contempt notice against the Birbhum district magistrate and West Bengal Power Development Corporation managing director for not giving jobs as promised to land-loser families who gave up land for the Bakre-swar Thermal Power Plant. This, despite the court’s directive to guarantee their employment in the plant.

The court passed the order on a contempt application by Sanjoy Mitre and 51 others whose land was acquired about two decades ago. The compensation package then offered included jobs at the plant.

The petitioners moved the court in 2003 against the state’s failure to keep its promise. On March 17, 2005, Justice Asim Banerjee directed district magistrate Khalil Ahmed and PDCL managing director S Mahapatra to absorb them under the exempted category. The court also directed the employment exchange to send the names on the basis of seniority. PDCL was asked to follow the list and was restrained from taking unskilled labour from outside.

The petitioners waited for three years for the authorities to execute the court order. They filed the contempt application only in January 2006. The court then gave the authorities another chance to carry out its order. But, more than a year later, the petitioner’s counsel, Kalyan Bandyopadhyay, wanted the court to clarify whether it held the alleged contemnors guilty.

Bandyopadhyay pointed out that the authorities had not as yet provided jobs to the land-losers and did not seem inclined to abide by the court order. Justice Banerjee accepted the petitioners’ plea and issued contempt notices against those concerned. The contemnors have to reply to the notice by next month.

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