21 Mar 2011

Mindless acquisition of land to be stopped: Supreme Court

Holding that the right to property of a person was a natural and legal right, and the Land Acquisition Act permitting the acquisition of land from the citizens was to be construed strictly. Noting that the "Courts must examine these questions very carefully when little Indians lose their small property in the name of mindless acquisition at the instance of the State", the Supreme Court in a recent decision [Dev Sharan v. State of U.P.] has declared that hearing has to be granted to the person whose land is being acquired unless such emergent conditions exist that the grant of hearing would cripple the public interest being addressed. 

In concluding thus, the Supreme Court made interesting observations on the concept of land acquisition and the withering of rights over land of the citizens to conclude that a strict regime was required to be implemented before the citizens could be rendered landless. In this context, the Court expressed its opinion in the following terms;
15. Admittedly, the Land Acquisition Act, a pre-Constitutional legislation of colonial vintage is a drastic law, being expropriatory in nature as it confers on the State a power which affects person’s property right. Even though right to property is no longer fundamental and was never a natural right, and is acquired on a concession by the State, it has to be accepted that without right to some property, other rights become illusory. This Court is considering these questions, especially, in the context of some recent trends in land acquisition. This Court is of the opinion that the concept of public purpose in land acquisition has to be viewed from an angle which is consistent with the concept of a welfare State. 
16. The concept of public purpose cannot remain static for all time to come. The concept, even though sought to be defined under Section 3(f) of the Act, is not capable of any precise definition. The said definition, having suffered several amendments, has assumed the character of an inclusive one. It must be accepted that in construing public purpose, a broad and overall view has to be taken and the focus must be on ensuring maximum benefit to the largest number of people. Any attempt by the State to acquire land by promoting a public purpose to benefit a particular group of people or to serve any particular interest at the cost of the interest of a large section of people especially of the common people defeats the very concept of public purpose. Even though the concept of public purpose was introduced by pre-Constitutional legislation, its application must be consistent with the constitutional ethos and especially the chapter under Fundamental Rights and also the Directive Principles.
17. In construing the concept of public purpose, the mandate of Article 13 of the Constitution that any pre-constitutional law cannot in any way take away or abridge rights conferred under Part–III must be kept in mind. By judicial interpretation the contents of these Part III rights are constantly expanded. The meaning of public purpose in acquisition of land must be judged on the touchstone of this expanded view of Part-III rights. The open-ended nature of our Constitution needs a harmonious reconciliation between various competing principles and the overhanging shadows of socio-economic reality in this country.
18. Therefore, the concept of public purpose on this broad horizon must also be read into the provisions of emergency power under Section 17 with the consequential dispensation of right of hearing under Section 5A of the said Act. The Courts must examine these questions very carefully when little Indians lose their small property in the name of mindless acquisition at the instance of the State. If public purpose can be satisfied by not rendering common man homeless and by exploring other avenues of acquisition, the Courts, before sanctioning an acquisition, must in exercise of its power of judicial review, focus its attention on the concept of social and economic justice . While examining these questions of public importance, the Courts, especially the Higher Courts, cannot afford to act as mere umpires. In this context we reiterate the principle laid down by this Court in Authorised Officer, Thanjavur and another vs. S. Naganatha Ayyar and others reported in (1979) 3 SCC 466, wherein this Court held:
“……It is true that Judges are constitutional invigilators and statutory interpreters; but they are also responsive and responsible to Part IV of the Constitution being one of the trinity of the nation’s appointed instrumentalities in the transformation of the socioeconomic order. The judiciary, in its sphere, shares the revolutionary purpose of the constitutional order, and when called upon to decode social legislation must be animated by a goal-oriented approach. This is part of the dynamics of statutory interpretation in the developing countries so that courts are not converted into rescue shelters for those who seek to defeat agrarian justice by cute transactions of many manifestations now so familiar in the country and illustrated by the several cases under appeal. This caveat has become necessary because the judiciary is not a mere umpire, as some assume, but an activist catalyst in the constitutional scheme.”
19. In other words public purpose must be viewed through the prism of Constitutional values as stated above. 
20. The aforesaid principles in our jurisprudence compel this Court to construe any expropriartory legislation like the Land Acquisition Act very strictly. 
21. The judicial pronouncements on this aspect are numerous, only a few of them may be noted here.
22. In DLF Qutab Enclave Complex Educational Charitable Trust vs. State of Haryana and Ors. – (2003) 5 SCC 622, this Court construed the statute on Town Planning Law and held ”Expropriatory statute, as is well known, must be strictly construed.” (See para 41 page 635).
23. The same principle has been reiterated subsequently by a three-Judge Bench of this Court in State of Maharashtra and Anr. vs. B.E. Billimoria and Ors. – (2003) 7 SCC 336 in the context of ceiling law. (See para 22 at page 347 of the report).
24. These principles again found support in the decision of this Court in Chairman, Indore Vikas Pradhikaran vs. Pure Industrial Coke and Chemicals Ltd. and Ors. – (2007) 8 SCC 705, wherein this Court construed the status of a person’s right to property after deletion of Article 19(1)(f) from Part III. By referring to various international covenants, namely, the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights, this Court held that even though right to property has ceased to be a fundamental right but it would however be given an express recognition as a legal right and also as a human right.
25. While discussing the ambit and extent of property right, this Court reiterated that expropriatory legislation must be given strict construction. (See para 53 to 57 at pages 731 to 732 of the report).

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