Tatas get interim relief from SC on Singur

New Delhi: Tata Motors` on Wednesday got "interim protection" from the Supreme Court which stopped the newly-elected West Bengal Government from returning to farmers the land acquired for the automobile major`s small car project Nano in Singur.

"Our interim protection is for some time," the apex court said noting that the main matter against the state government on the issue of possession and distribution of the land to the original owners was pending before the Calcutta High Court.

"As an interim order we direct state government not to hand over or return land to farmers concerned until further order passed by the High Court," a vacation bench comprising justices P Sathasivam and A K Patnaik said.

The bench said it was making it clear that this was an "interim arrangement" and it was not expressing any opinion on the merits of the case.

The judges said they were passing a "limited interim order" and asking the high court to proceed with the main matter in which the Tatas have challenged the new law enacted by the Mamata Banerjee government for taking possession of land and distributing it to farmers who were the original owners.

Hours after the order, the Chief Minister said the apex court did not stop land survey and the "process of distribution of land".

A report from Singur said since the order was yet to reach to the authorities, survey and ground levelling work continued with over 150 farmers submitting forms for reclaiming their holdings.

During the hearing, the bench sought to keep itself away from expressing its view on the merits of the case, saying that since the main issues were pending before the high court, it was not inclined to go into them.

"We are not inclined to interfere at this stage on the main issues pending before the high court," it said adding, "it is not a question of political equations but a question of rights".

The bench said it was granting interim protection as senior counsel P P Rao, appearing for the state government, made it clear that possession of the land will remain in the hands of the state government till the high court decides the issue.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Tata Motors challenging the order of Calcutta High Court which refused to grant any relief to it.

At the outset, the bench told senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Tata Motors, that there was a limited issue before it as the automobile company has not asked it to go into the legislation relating to the land in Singur, an issue before the High Court.

"We are not underestimating the matter," it said.

The bench made the remarks after Rohatgi said Tata`s have to rush to the apex court as an extraordinary situation has arisen after the Trinamool Congress-led government came out with a legislation on the night of June 21 to take possession of around 1000 acres of land and for its distribution among the farmers from whom the land was acquired for the Nano project.

He alleged that not only due to the protest and agitation by the Trinamool Congress on the issue of land, the small car project was forced out of the state but the small vendors who had established their units for ancilliary are facing the brunt of the state government.

Rohatgi contended that the land acquisition and handing it over to Tata Motors on lease for 99 years was not a clandestine exercise as the High Court had upheld the acquisition of land by the previous CPM government and as such it cannot be returned to farmers.

When the bench asked what was the present state of affairs, Rohatgi said Tata Motors` is being dispossessed of the land and sought an order that it should remain with the state government till the issue pending in the High Court was decided.

Senior advocates P P Rao and Kalyan Bandhopadhya, appearing for the West Bengal Government, assured the court that the land was not being returned to the farmers as the procedure of objections cannot be completed before 30 days as the applications have to be scrutinised by a High Court appointed committee.

Taking note of the state government` submission and before passing the interim order, the bench said "We take it from you that you are not going to return the land till the High Court passes some order".

Tata Motors had yesterday approached the Supreme Court accusing the West Bengal government of enacting the law in a haste to take over land in Singur allotted to it for its Nano car project and using police force illegally to take back possession of the plot.

The Tatas, which on June 27 failed to get any relief from the Calcutta High Court, had challenged the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development (SLRD) Act, passed by the state assembly for taking back possession of the land and distributing it among farmers who owned them before acquisition by the previous Left Front government.

Tatas have filed the appeals against the orders of the High Court which rejected its plea to restrain the state government from taking back possession and distribution of land to farmers.

The petitions said the state government was allegedly indulging in "colourable exercise of power" on Singur land issue.

Tatas alleged the state government has been "illegally" taking possession of land by using police force.

The company had said that in view of "vandalism" and "looting" of goods at the factory site, the land should be returned immediately to Tata.

Tata Motors had filed separate petitions challenging two Calcutta High Court orders dated June 23 and June 27.

On June 23, the high court had refused to entertain the company`s plea seeking directions to restrain the state government from taking possession of the about 1000 acre land.

The company had also filed another plea in the high court on June 23, unsuccessfully challenging the SLRD Act and rules and notification since June 20.

It had also sought a direction to restrain the state government from distributing land to original owners and farmers thus creating a third party interest.