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Will Salboni cast its shadow on Singur?

Comparisons between Salboni and Singur have been unavoidable for the past many years for a variety of reasons. Next month will decide whether with the latest decision to return the land bought from Salboni locals “free of cost” to them, Sajjan Jindal has made things tougher (unintentionally) for the ill-fated Tata Motors project at Singur.

The validity of the Singur Act–which enabled West Bengal government the 997-acre plot in Singur leased to Tata Motors and its vendors–is in the final leg of hearing. The next hearing has been fixed for January 27; verdict too is expected shortly.

On Monday while announcing Jindal’s proposal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said that this was the model she had mooted for Singur. Banerjee has been demanding return of “400 acres” to the unwilling farmers of Singur since her days in the Opposition. Government officials, however, peg the share of unwilling farmers’ land at 181 acres. But the important question is, will Banerjee try and draw a parallel with the “Salboni model” in the Singur case, unrelated though it may be?

“The case is sub judice, so I should not say anything outside the courtroom. But the Salboni decision has shown that it is possible to return land to land losers. Let the case come up for hearing in January,” TMC MP and one of the legal counsels representing the state government in the Singur case, Kalyan Banerjee, said.

When hearing started last year, Supreme Court had asked Tata Motors to make its stand clear on its leasehold rights over the Singur land, as the company had already moved its small car project out of West Bengal. It had asked the company to file an affidavit on its position in the changed scenario and whether the purpose of the lease got frustrated and the land should move back to the agriculturists.

The apex court is hearing a special leave petition (SLP) filed by the West Bengal government, challenging the quashing of the Singur Land Rehabilitation & Development Act by the Calcutta High Court.

Tata group had informed the court later that it wanted to keep the leasehold rights over the Singur land, as it was keen on returning to the state with an industrial project.

Singur and Salboni have always been two extremes of West Bengal’s land acquisition story.

Singur was announced in 2006 and soon got embroiled in the battle for land rights; Salboni, which signed a development agreement with the Left Front-led West Bengal government in 2007, scripted the sunny side of West Bengal’s land acquisition story.

Between the two contrasting pictures, however, was the character of land at the sites; Singur was fertile and multi-crop, Salboni largely single crop. Ironically, however, neither project took off, albeit for different reasons.

The land acquisition story in Singur got turbulent with time. An indefinite agitation led by Mamata Banerjee in support of the unwilling land losers led to the pullout of the project in 2008. Salboni’s problem was lack of raw material linkages, first iron ore, and now coal.

The latest masterstroke from Sajjan Jindal, however, has given the project a fresh lease of life, though bureaucrats think that technically, no parallel could be drawn with Singur.

For one, the Land Acquisition Act was invoked to acquire the land in Singur which does not allow return of land to the original owners while at Salboni the land being returned was purchased directly by JSW Steel.

“Once the land is vested, the title extinguishes. The acquired land can be used for any other public purpose if the orginal purpose is not fulfilled or it can be auctioned,” a senior bureaucrat said. In Salboni, the company purchased the land directly from land losers, and hence is not within the ambit of the Land Acquisition Act.

“Direct purchase was possible in Salboni because it involved just 485 families. In Singur, project affected people were 13,000. The two models cannot be compared,” the bureaucrat said.

But those are technicalities that Chief Minister Banerjee may not be interested in.

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