On the night of June 21, around 10 p.m., the police of West Bengal’s Hooghly district descended on Tata Motors’ half-built Singur plant and threw out the private guards there. In about half an hour, the new government in West Bengal, under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, took over the 997 acres that had proved to be the Waterloo of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its allies.
Earlier, around 5:30 in the evening, a letter had been faxed to Prakash Telang, managing director of Tata Motors, stating that the government was reclaiming the land under the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011, passed by the legislative Assembly a week earlier. The law charged Tata Motors with “non-commissioning and abandoning” of the project and went on to state that “no employment generation and socio-economic development has taken place and people in and around the area have not benefited in any manner”.
The company says it didn’t get the fax. But local Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers had pasted the notice on the boundary wall of the Singur plant. Tata Motors says four-and-a-half-hours hardly constitutes prior intimation. “Even conventional norms, decency or civility demands that you can’t do that. The notice eventually came to us only on June 28 in Mumbai,” says a senior official at Tata Motors who did not want to be named.
Although Tata Motors officially got the notice on June 28, it had learnt of the notices pasted on the Singur plant walls on the night of June 21 itself. That very night, the company got in touch with J.N. Patel, chief justice of the Calcutta High Court and pleaded for a stay, on the grounds that the state can’t take over its land. Patel said he could not pass a stay order, but would put in a request to the government. Not sure if that would work, Tata Motors went to the Calcutta High Court, contesting the constitutional validity of the Singur Act.
In the days that followed, Mamata Banerjee tried to fulfill her electoral promise of returning the land to farmers who, she insists, had been forced to sell by the previous government. At Singur, tables were put up as counters and ‘unwilling’ farmers were asked to submit details of their land holdings.
Even as all this was happening, during a hearing on June 24 in the high court, Tata Motors’ counsel requested the advocate general to maintain the status quo regarding the distribution of land. The advocate general said it was not possible for him to respond right away, but he would think about it over the weekend.
Beyond Courtroom Drama
Not sure of what the outcome would be, Ravi Kant, the non-executive vice chairman of Tata Motors, decided to intervene. On June 25, he met state Finance Minister Amit Mitra and Commerce and Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee at the Taj Bengal. At the meeting, where legal counsels of both sides were also present, Chatterjee was curious to know why Tata Motors chose Singur, knowing full well that it was one of the most fertile lands in West Bengal. Kant replied that it was not them but the former government that chose the land.
(On December 4, 2006, in response to a query from the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights under the RTI Act, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation [WBIDC] had said Singur was preferred for its accessibility and availability of infrastructure.)
The meeting lasted a few hours but no settlement was reached. According to sources, Tata Motors wanted a compensation of about Rs. 2,000 crore to leave Singur. For an almost bankrupt state government, this was out of the question. According to a source, Chatterjee vehemently opposed it, asking why Tata Motors wanted Rs. 500 crore more than what they had invested.
On June 27, with still no word from the advocate general, a frustrated Tata Motors knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court, requesting a stay to ensure “that the position on the ground should not be irretrievably changed when the main matters are pending before the Calcutta High Court.” Two days later, the apex court stayed the redistribution, but said the process of identifying land holdings could go on.
Meanwhile, Singur swung between hope and despair as the long-term implications of the Supreme Court’s stay trickled down to the farmers. “There is a sense of being lost in the quagmire of legality and a fear that we will not get back what we have been fighting for so long,” says Dudh Kumar Dhara, the chief of Beraberi gram panchayat and a member of the committee set up to help return the land.
The serpentine queue of farmers at the block development office thinned as they realised that the wait to get back their lands was far from over. Pulak Sarkar, the block development officer of Singur, told Forbes India on July 2, “There is a visible fall in the enthusiasm of the people, and the number of submissions has reduced drastically. Even fewer forms were submitted today.”
TMC is well aware of the repercussions of not fulfilling its pre-poll promise. “Our government is trying to do a historic act by returning the acquired land to the rightful owners. There are lot of vested interests that do not want it to happen and hence [the government] is facing opposition,” says Becharam Manna, a TMC legislator from Haripal who had been at the forefront of the protest against land acquisition.
Is The Singur Act Legal?