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'I see no reason why Singur issue can't be resolved'
Indrani Roy Mitra

Justice Chittotosh Mukherjee.
Photograph: Dipak Chakrabarty
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September 11, 2008

Chittotosh Mukherjee is a busy man.

The former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court was the legal advisor to West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who chaired the meeting between Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee at Raj Bhavan on September 7 to find a resolution to the Singur deadlock that has held up the Tata Motors' [Get Quote] Nano car project.

The septuagenarian judge is up to his neck in work at the moment and can afford very little time for media interaction.

However, the grandson of the illustrious Sir Asutosh Mukherjee took time off to about the crucial meet.

"I am essentially an apolitical person, you see," he said, making it obvious that he would not make any 'political' statement on the issue.

You were there throughout when the state government and Trinamool Congress called it a 'truce.' Do you think the 'solution' that was arrived at is a happy one?

I attended the meetings at the Raj Bhavan as an observer. I did not exactly participate in them. It won't be proper to call the meeting a truce. I would like to call it a 'compromise' to end an impasse.

It was very nice of both the parties to come together for a discussion to resolve a crisis  Though an agreement has been signed between the state government and the Trinamool Congress, it will take some time before the entire process of alternate land return is worked out.

Now the four-member committee will earmark the land to be returned to the 'unwilling' farmers. It is a lengthy process. The decision has to be taken by the state government, law can only lend it a proper shape.

During the talks, did the situation ever get so bad that it seemed a solution was impossible?

(Smiles) Negotiations, like the one that took place at Raj Bhavan, are always expected to be charged with emotion.

Mamata Banerjee was carrying on a movement for a fortnight and she is known to be an extremely emotional soul. However, she did mention to me that she has a lot of respect for the Governor and she was there only because he had requested her presence.

The state government was represented by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Industry Minister Nirupam Sen, and Health Minister Suryakanta Misra.

The meeting did have its desperate moments but it won't be proper for me to elaborate on that.

What happened in the end is all that matters.

Please share with us you views on the role of Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi chairing the crucial meeting.

He is a man of grand personality. I have tremendous respect and admiration for him. It was a great achievement for the Governor to bring the chief minister and Trinamool chief for the historic meeting.

It has been reported in the media that Tatas had already returned 40 of the 997 acres of the land leased to them before starting the project and that they had made it clear any further withdrawal of the land would make the project 'unviable.' Was this point ever raised during the meeting between the government and Trinamool Congress?

This is sheer misreporting by the media, I guess. Tatas never returned any part of the land leased to them.

It was suggested at the Raj Bhavan meeting that there was a narrow piece of land within the project area adjacent to the boundary wall separated by a nullah that can be returned to the 'unwilling' farmers.

This was a suggestion, mind you. Now the onus rests on the land committee to take this forward.

If you ask me, I do feel, however, that the space for the car accessories' units could have been allotted elsewhere, perhaps somewhere outside the main factory.

Just when we thought the Singur impasse was over, Tatas' stand has almost shattered all hopes of resolving the issue. Do you think the project was very badly handled right from the beginning?

(Laughs) Despite my warning, here comes a political question. I am not in a position to comment on this. However, as a citizen of India, all I can say is that in any negotiation, you ought to give a little and take a little.

A lopsided view by any one of the parties involved does not help to arrive at an amicable settlement.

The state government ultimately agreed to a land-for-land formula. Had it agreed before, a lot of chaos could have been averted. Please share with us your views. Also, do you think the anti-Singur agitation by Mamata Banerjee was justified?

It would be unwise to assume that unanimity has been reached on the land-for-land issue.

Let's put it this way: two parties agreed on certain points and signed on the dotted line at the September 7 meeting. Compulsory acquisition of land by a government on payment of compensation for a public purpose is a usual procedure that takes place in every country. There is nothing illegal about it.

Now that the meeting is over, the state government has to decide on three issues:

  1. Is it prepared to return the land?
  2. From where will it get the land?
  3. What should be modalities?

This is where politics exits and law steps in.

As for Banerjee's agitation, it was entirely her prerogative; I should not speak about it.

The Land Acquisition Act states that land can be returned. But the Supreme Court said in 2001 and 2007 that land once acquired cannot be returned -- this seems contradictory. Could you please explain?

Law, as I said, is there to give shape to any government decision.

Any government policy can decide to return any piece of acquired land for a public purpose if it so wishes.

Law can be changed at times to serve the state's purpose. There should not be any confusion in this regard.

Legally speaking, what do you think should be the proper compensation for landlosers in Singur -- equal piece of land, money or job?

Under the Act, money is the only compensation for the land acquired. However, as I told you before, if the state government wishes, it can grant other benefits, for instance, jobs or arable lands, to the owners of the acquired land.

Now that fresh problems have cropped up, do you think Singur impasse still stands a chance of getting resolved?

I sincerely hope that good sense prevails on all the three parties involved: Left Front, Trinamool Congress and the Tatas.

If all three agree to take a step forward, I see no reason why the issue can't be resolved.

If Nano goes out of Bengal, what impact will it have on the state's economy, image and industrialisation?

If Nano goes out of Bengal, it would not be the end of the road. We have been surviving without the Rs 1-lakh car all these years.

However, having a factory here will definitely create lot of employment opportunities for the people. It is, therefore, beneficial to the people of West Bengal.

One should never forget that industrialisation is always welcome, but it should not neglect agriculture. Industry and agriculture must walk in tandem and must respect each other.

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