The division bench of the Calcutta High Court annulling the law under which the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal sought to return land to Singur farmers unwilling to sell to the Tatas is not the last word on the subject. Most likely, the state will appeal to the Supreme Court. While a part of the verdict rests on a technicality – the legislation, dealing with a subject under the concurrent list, lacks the President’s approval – it also points out that returning land to landowners and farmers cannot be deemed to be in the public interest. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has hinted that she will follow a dual-track approach — legal and political. For the latter, she appears on the way to reviving the grass-roots coalition of forces that spearheaded the agitation against what was described as forcible acquisition of land for the Nano project.
There are two reasons why Ms Banerjee is unlikely to take the legal defeat lying down. An inability to return land to those farmers who were unwilling to sell will negate a key promise she had made during the campaign that had brought her to power. Also, being flexible and accommodating has not been the hallmark of her politics. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lack of flexibility is inflicting a huge cost on her party and the government. She has met with two setbacks recently – on opposing the presidential candidature of Pranab Mukherjee and Singur land – connected to that inflexibility. The court verdict, in fact, allows for a face-saving opportunity to reverse gear (what can we do since the courts will not allow it, she can say) and address a key deficit in her first year of rule — the inability to win large investments and raise the confidence level of corporate India. Without a favourable investment climate there will be poor growth and consequently inadequate rise in state revenue. But the latter is vital if the state is to get out of its chronic indebtedness and meet even a part of its grand social welfare agenda.
While all are agreed that the state cannot be seen to be anti-farmer in seeking to facilitate land acquisition for industrial investment, it is also clear that the state will have to make a small but critical intervention to bring in line those who keep holding out after a substantial portion of land for a particular project has already been acquired. The folly of intransigence is highlighted in the West Bengal chief minister’s opposition to all special economic zones (SEZs), and thereby being in danger of losing anchor investors in information technology firms like Infosys and Wipro. All that she needs to do is acknowledge that, while SEZ projects are often more a real estate than industrial play, iconic IT companies are not into real estate per se. A signal that she is willing to be flexible will also put the onus on the Tatas to reciprocate. They can surely do with a little less land, which might just allow for some token return to farmers. If both sides are willing to do business, West Bengal can get the investment that it urgently needs.