NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday set aside a 40 acre land allotment in Kutch district permitted by the Modi government to Alumina Refinery Limited for a sum of Rs 1.20 crore in violation of statutory norms.

The top court also had harsh words for Modi’s Revenue Minister Anandi Ben Patel who cleared the sale from an earlier company which was allotted the plot, bypassing objections from top bureaucrats.

“The action… is absolutely arbitrary. The state or a public authority which holds the property for the public, and which has the authority to grant the largesse, has to act as a trustee of the people and therefore to act fairly and reasonably. The holders of public office are ultimately accountable to the public in whom the sovereignty vests. The action… is arbitrary, and therefore violative of Article 14 of the Constitution,” it said.

The Gujarat High Court had refused to entertain a PIL filed by an activist, with Congress leanings. The PIL had challenged the sale on the ground that there was no provision for further transfer of agricultural land from one industrial purchaser to any third party again for industrial use when the first purchaser of agricultural land had defaulted.

Gujarat HC had cited the delay and the PIL petitioners’ failure to reveal the investment made by the second company in the project to reject the PIL. The land was initially allotted in 2003 to Indigold Refinery, Mumbai, for industrial purposes at a sum of Rs 70 lakh. That project never took off.

The company cited financial constraints to not proceed with the project in 2008. As per the statutory requirements the land, which was agricultural, was expected to revert back to the state government if the company failed to set up the project in three years and begin production in five. But the state government permitted Indigold in 2010 to sell the land to Alumina, without following procedures which mandated the collector to hold an inquiry and take back the land after appropriate compensation and allot it afresh.

Mandatory provisions in case the land was not used for industrial activity within the time provided cannot be bypassed merely upon endorsement made the revenue minister, the top court said while deciding the appeal. Since the official price of the land in 2008 was estimated at Rs 4.35 cr, the top court, however, left the door open for the state government to allot it afresh to Alumina.

Alumina, which proposes to set up a 25,000 metric tonne plant, can get the land if it pays Rs 3.15 cr, the difference between the official price and what they had paid Indigold. “… transfer of land has been permitted because (Indigold) directly approached the Chief Minister and thereafter the Revenue Minister. It was submitted that such an act of making of a special case smacks of arbitrariness,” the court said.

“… Minister of Revenue Anandiben Patel has insisted on treating this case as a special case for which she has recorded no justifiable reasons whatsoever, and orders were issued accordingly…. Thus what has happened is that powers of the statutory authority have been exercised by the government, an appellate authority.” “The present case is clearly one of dereliction of duties by the collector and dictation by the minister, showing nothing but arrogance of power,” Justices HL Gokhale and Jasti Chelameswar said.

By Anupama

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