The Right to Land and Livelihoods in India
This case focuses on the compulsory acquisition of land by the State of West Bengal for a car manufacturing unit under the auspices of “public purpose”. The Supreme Court of India determined that the acquisition had not been for a public purpose, but for the benefit of a company, and ordered the return of the land to local farmers. In doing so, the Court emphasized the need to adhere to proper legal procedures, especially in light of impacts on the most vulnerable sections of society, which include poor agricultural workers.
In 2006, the Government of West Bengal agreed to let Tata Motors Ltd. (Tata Motors) construct and operate a car manufacturing unit in their state (Small Car Project). Accordingly, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, Ltd. (WBIDC) acquired approximately 1000 acres of agricultural land for the project pursuant to the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (L.A. Act), affecting the livelihoods of approximately 25,000 people – farmers, sharecroppers, landless laborers, and rickshaw pullers. The claimants in this case were five farmers and small landowners. Objections were filed with the Land Acquisition Collector, who concluded subsequently that the land was being taken for a public purpose, namely employment creation and socio-economic development. The Collector then made an award of compensation to the existing landowners and the land was acquired by WBIDC. The acquisition proceedings were challenged before the High Court of Calcutta and were dismissed.
As a result of numerous local protests, the Small Car Project was halted and relocated to the State of Gujarat in 2008. The new Government of West Bengal then enacted the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 (Singur Act) for the purpose of taking over the land covered by the lease to Tata Motors. Tata Motors challenged the constitutionality of the Singur Act before the Supreme Court of India (Court), arguing that it conflicts with the earlier L.A. Act and that the government cannot change its mind simply because a new political party takes power.
In considering the validity of the land acquisition, the Court rejected the arguments of Tata Motors. In relation to the preliminary objection regarding a change in political power, the Court noted that it is well established that a state government can change earlier laws especially if they were against public policy.
The Court determined that the land acquired by WBIDC for Tata Motors was not for a public purpose under the L.A. Act, but rather by the state government for a company. In this context, the previous government exercised its eminent domain power (i.e. the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation) without following the required procedure set forth in the L.A. Act (namely Sections 3(f), 4, and 6, and VII), depriving those who lost their land of their constitutional and fundamental rights. Further, the Court found that the inquiry contemplated under 5-A2 of the L.A. Act was not duly conducted by the Collector as some of the objectors had not been given a chance to be heard and the Collector denied their objections without genuine consideration.
The Court quashed the acquisition of the landowners’ land, declaring it illegal and void. The Court ordered the Government of West Bengal to conduct a survey to determine what land needed to be returned, and then to return it. The Court further ordered that the compensation which had already been paid to the landowners not be recovered by the state government, as reparation for having been deprived of the occupation and enjoyment of their lands for ten years; and permitting the landowners who had not already withdrawn their compensation to do so.
The decision is being implemented. The factory is being dismantled. The land is being returned to the farmers. The decision has been a morale booster for the farmers of West Bengal who are currently mobilizing against land acquisition in another part of West Bengal.
- Paschim Bengal Khet Majoor Samity (West Bengal Agricultural Workers Organisation)
- Human Rights Law Network – HRLN
For the first time, the Supreme Court of India drew a sharp distinction between acquisition of land undertaken by government on public purpose grounds versus for the benefit of a private company. Notably, the Court stated that “[s]uch an acquisition, if allowed to sustain, would lead to the attempt to justify any and every acquisition of land of the most vulnerable sections of the society in the name of ‘public purpose’ to promote socio-economic development.” In the case of land acquisition for companies, the legal provisions are very strict and require a prescribed procedure, including negotiations with farmers. In this regard, and considering the pace of economic development, the Court confirmed that “when the brunt of this ‘development’ is borne by the weakest sections of the society, more so, poor agricultural workers who have no means of raising a voice against the action of the mighty state government, as is the case in the instant fact situation, it is the onerous duty of the state Government to ensure that the mandatory procedure laid down … [is] followed scrupulously”. This is the first time that farmers have been given back their land and simultaneously been allowed to retain the compensation paid by government for acquisition.