This Article is From Sep 06, 2016

Proven. Tata Exit Does Not Mean Bengal Is Forever Doomed.

"The acquisition of land of the landowners/cultivators in the instant case is declared as illegal and void...Let possession of the lands be restored to the landowners/cultivators within 12 weeks..."

Thus reads the order passed by the Honourable Justices Gowda and Mishra in the civil appeal arising out of SLP number 8463 of 2008, one of the most awaited judgements in the history of Bengal and, indeed, that of independent India. While the two brother judges may not have concurred on whether the acquisition was for a company or for a public purpose, they were unanimous in their stinging indictment of the erstwhile Left government and its utter disregard for due process and the law. The "Singur Case" (in popular parlance today) symbolised the most basic struggle of humankind: of peasant against brute force, of sheer tenacity against impossible odds. The agitation ultimately led to the death of a 34-year-old regime, steeped as it were in the morass of arrogance and self-righteousness. It played no small part in the birth of a new government, whose mandate has just been vindicated by the highest court of the land. 

No point in time has perhaps been more appropriate than now in setting the record straight on a few myths and half-facts being perpetuated in the name of popular truth. Number one - Mamata Banerjee agitated on behalf of the Singur peasants because she was "anti-industry"; number two - the Nano project was the only plan that could have led to a new birth for Bengal and its exit meant the state was forever doomed; and number three - there was nothing wrong in riding roughshod over the rights of the farmers unwilling to sell their land (a whopping 40% of the total) since it was somehow in the greater good of all.  

On the first: Mamata Banerjee agitated on behalf of the peasants in Singur because she believed it to be the most fundamental duty of any democratically elected government to safeguard the interests of its poorest and most wretched and not use brute force to wrest away their rights in law. The judgement has reiterated precisely this. It is clear and unequivocal in its message - the land acquisition collector did not conduct an enquiry as laid down in the law; did not assign reasons for rejecting the objections of the peasants after clear application of mind; the enquiry held was a "farce" and an "eyewash" and the report of the land acquisition collector were made after the cabinet decision to acquire land in certain areas as per the choice of the Tata Motors and was clearly coloured.

On the second: The Trinamool government was formed on the back of a historic mandate in 2011 and re-affirmed by an even more resounding victory in 2016. The naysayers will do well to remember that about 68% of Bengal still lives in its villages and any one single project, industrial or otherwise, that trampled on the most basic right to livelihood would augur Bengal's doom. Not the other way around.

And finally on the third: To those in the business world who insisted there was nothing wrong in acquiring land from unwilling farmers in the "greater cause of industry", let me put forth a very lucid example. The Singur acquisition of land can very simply be thought of as a corporate takeover by a bidder of a target. The target in question was a tract of land, an immovable asset, and the peasants/cultivators were shareholders in this target asset. Were this particular bidder to buy a target company in the UK (as it has in the recent past), or in Europe, it would be subject to the provisions of the UK Takeover Code or the European Takeover Directive. These codes establish the general principles that are common to most takeover systems worldwide: equal treatment of target shareholders, ability of target shareholders to make informed decisions on bids, and prohibition of market manipulation or abuse. 

The Takeover Directive requires European member states to adopt a mechanism that allows bidders to "squeeze out" shareholders if the bidder reaches a certain ownership threshold (between 90 and 95 percent). France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy have opted for a 95 percent threshold, whereas the UK has opted for 90 percent. The new Companies Act 2013 in India sets the threshold at 90 percent for Indian companies to buy out minority shareholders at a prescribed price and with various protections.  

Of the 1,000 acres acquired for the project, landowners who owned about 400 acres (40% of the total), were unwilling to part with their land. This then was not a small "minority". If the very same bidder were to make an offer to buy the shares of a UK company at say £10 a share, and if 40% of shareholders were to reject the offer the bidder would very simply not be able to gain control of the target. Only if the buyer were to reach the "squeeze-out" threshold of 90% of shareholders agreeing to the offer would it then be able to force the remaining 10% of shareholders to sell at the price offered. 

Why then should this "squeeze-out" threshold of 90% be relaxed to an absurd 60% in the case of Singur with 40% of unwilling sellers forced to forego their shareholding? Do basic market principles that are applicable to shareholders in companies (who are a generally far more aware of their rights and legal safeguards) not hold good for poor illiterate peasants who happen to be shareholders in an asset being coveted by a corporate bidder? Mamata Banerjee was probably not aware of the market principles enshrined in global takeover codes. But her instinct for the principles of natural justice alone told her something was not quite right with this takeover. 

So thank you Justices Gowda and Mishra for ensuring that the history of our state will be recorded on a plaque of established fact and not half-truths. And thank you Mamata-di for walking the talk and then leading the walk - Singur and Bengal will be forever grateful.

(Mahua Moitra is a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly and General Secretary of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress.)

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