India’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday that land acquired by West Bengal state for a Tata Motors factory must be returned to farmers, the latest twist in a decade-long battle that came to symbolise conflict over land in the country.
The process by which 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land in Singur was acquired in 2006 was “shocking” and “a farce”, the top court said, quashing an earlier order by a Kolkata court that upheld the acquisition.
The land could not be deemed to have been acquired for a “public purpose” and must be returned to the farmers within 12 weeks, the Supreme Court ruled.
“We are very happy with the verdict,” Kalyan Banerjee, lead counsel for the state, told reporters in New Delhi.
“People had suffered a lot,” he said.
Tata Motors, one of India’s top automakers, was allotted the land by West Bengal’s previous government for a factory to build the low-cost Nano car.
After violent protests by farmers who did not want to surrender their land, Tata Motors moved the operations to Gujarat state in 2008.
The company has sought compensation from West Bengal for its investment of more than $300 million, and said it would not give up the land.
“We will study today’s judgment in detail before commenting,” a Tata Motors spokeswoman said by e-mail.
It is a historic verdict which acknowledges the right of the farmers over forcible acquisition of land.
Mamata Banerjee, Indian chief minister
Conflicts over land in India have increased as one of the world’s fastest growing major economies expands, and land is sought for industrial use and development projects.
While several laws have been introduced in the past decade to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people, some laws have been diluted in their implementation and not always helped the vulnerable, activists say.
Between 1950 and 2005, about 65 million people were displaced in India by dams, highways, mines and airports, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Less than a fifth have been resettled.
Mamata Banerjee, who led protests against the Singur deal, won state elections in 2011 to become chief minister and made the return of land to farmers a central plank of her campaign.
“The Supreme Court verdict is a landmark victory for us,” Banerjee said at a press briefing in Kolkata on Wednesday.
“It is a historic verdict which acknowledges the right of the farmers over forcible acquisition of land,” she said.
The protests in Singur came to reflect the wider standoff between industry in India and villagers unwilling to part with land in a country where two thirds of the population still depends on agriculture for a living.
Earlier this week, two people were killed in Jharkhand state when villagers protesting the loss of their homes to a power plant clashed with police.
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