The Supreme Court order against land acquisition in Singur by the then CPM-led West Bengal government a decade ago puts a legal imprimatur on a political failure. The two-judge bench cancelled the acquisition citing procedural deficiencies in the process, which it described as “colourable exercise of power” and “fraud”. The judges said the administration had not followed procedures laid down in the Land Acquisition Law, 1894. Simply put, the state government had ignored due process and had tried to force unwilling land owners and cultivators to part with their land for an industrial project, which, notably, did have a public purpose. It refused to address people’s concerns and opted to use the muscle of the state and party machinery to enforce its diktat rather than using the political tools of negotiation and persuasion. The Singur protests reflected a crisis of political economy and the inability of the then Left Front government to steer West Bengal’s modernisation. In the end, Singur changed the political landscape of West Bengal with disastrous consequences for the Left. The Left has since lost two consecutive assembly elections and been reduced to a rump in national politics; the TMC has become a national party.
The Left Front’s diagnosis that West Bengal needed an industrial revolution to overcome social and economic stagnation was apt. Then chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, had announced the Nano project in Singur soon after the Left Front won a decisive mandate on the promise of industrialisation of the state. Clearly, the people were not opposed to the government setting up factories and manufacturing units that would create more jobs. But they expected the government to address their fears and concerns and adequately compensate them for any loss of livelihood. The government, more specifically the CPM leadership, failed to take the people along and, instead, sought to crush dissent and protest. Months later, the government followed the same model in Nandigram leading to violent protests — at least 14 people were killed in police firing — and subsequent cancellation of the proposal for a chemical hub. Singur and Nandigram mark a colossal failure of political communication, so essential to democratic politics. Three decades in power had strengthened authoritarian tendencies in the CPM leadership, especially at the lower ranks, and blinded it to the disquiet on the ground.
That the CPM, which mobilised and grew on the agenda of land to the tiller, found it expedient to ignore the concerns of cultivators, indicated how three decades in office had led to the organisation’s disconnect with the grassroots.
Singur changed the national discourse on land acquisition. The UPA government replaced the 1894 law with The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act in 2013. The Modi government’s aborted attempt to amend the law since indicates that land acquisition will continue to be a political question. The lessons from Singur must caution and guide every government and party: Political communication and negotiation are key to bringing in change.