31 May 2011

Transparency in Land Allotment essential: Supreme Court

In his recent decision in the matter of Akhil Bhartiya Upbhokta Congress v. State of Madhya Pradesh, Justice G. S. Singhvi of the Supreme Court culled out the principles of administrative law and constitutional governance to declare that the State could not act in an arbitrary manner to grant favourable land allotments without following principles of public policy so as to grant equal opportunity to all the citizens. 

Called upon to decide the question "Whether the decision of the Government of Madhya Pradesh to allot 20 acres land comprised in Khasra Nos. 82/1 and 83 of village Bawadiya Kalan, Tehsil Huzur, District Bhopal to late Shri Kushabhau Thakre Memorial Trust without inviting other similarly situated organisations/institutions to participate in the process of allotment is contrary to Article 14 of the Constitution", the Apex Court declared that it found the allotment a "result of an exercise undertaken in gross violation of Article 14 of the Constitution and is an act of favoritism and nepotism".

The Court discussed the legal position, which is now the law of the land, as under;
14. We shall now consider whether the State Government could allot 20 acres of land to respondent No.5 without issuing an advertisement or adopting a procedure consistent with the doctrine of equality so as to enable other similar organizations/institutions to participate in the process of allotment.
15. The concept of ‘State’ has changed in recent years. In all democratic dispensations the State has assumed the role of a regulator and provider of different kinds of services and benefits to the people like jobs, contracts, licences, plots of land, mineral rights and social security benefits. In his work “The Modern State” MacIver (1964 Paperback Edition) advocated that the State should be viewed mainly as a service corporation. He highlighted difference in perception about the theory of State in the following words:
“To some people State is essentially a class-structure, “an organization of one class dominating over the other classes”; others regard it as an organisation that transcends all classes and stands for the whole community. They regard it as a powersystem. Some view it entirely as a legal structure, either in the old Austinian sense which made it a relationship of governors and governed, or, in the language of modern jurisprudence, as a community “organised for action under legal rules”. Some regard it as no more than a mutual insurance society, others as the very texture of all our life. Some class the State as a great “corporation” and others consider it as indistinguishable from society itself.”
16. When the Constitution was adopted, people of India resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic. The words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ were added by the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976 and also to secure to all its citizens Justice - social, economic and political, Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and/or opportunity and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. The expression ‘unity of the Nation’ was also added by the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976. The idea of welfare State is ingrained in the Preamble of the Constitution. Part III of the Constitution enumerates fundamental rights, many of which are akin to the basic rights of every human being. This part also contains various positive and negative mandates which are necessary for ensuring protection of the Fundamental Rights and making them real and meaningful. Part IV contains ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ which are fundamental in the governance of the country and it is the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws. Article 39 specifies certain principles of policy which are required to be followed by the State. Clause (b) thereof provides that the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good. Parliament and Legislatures of the States have enacted several laws and the governments have, from time to time, framed policies so that the national wealth and natural resources are equitably distributed among all sections of people so that have-nots of the society can aspire to compete with haves.
17. The role of the Government as provider of services and benefits to the people was noticed in R.D. Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India (1979) 3 SCC 489 in the following words:
“Today the Government in a welfare State, is the regulator and dispenser of special services and provider of a large number of benefits, including jobs, contracts, licences, quotas, mineral rights, etc. The Government pours forth wealth, money, benefits, services, contracts, quotas and licences. The valuables dispensed by Government take many forms, but they all share one characteristic. They are steadily taking the place of traditional forms of wealth. These valuables which derive from relationships to Government are of many kinds. They comprise social security benefits, cash grants for political sufferers and the whole scheme of State and local welfare. Then again, thousands of people are employed in the State and the Central Governments and local authorities. Licences are required before one can engage in many kinds of businesses or work. The power of giving licences means power to withhold them and this gives control to the Government or to the agents of Government on the lives of many people. Many individuals and many more businesses enjoy largesse in the form of Government contracts. These contracts often resemble subsidies. It is virtually impossible to lose money on them and many enterprises are set up primarily to do business with Government. Government owns and controls hundreds of acres of public land valuable for mining and other purposes. These resources are available for utilisation by private corporations and individuals by way of lease or licence. All these mean growth in the Government largesse and with the increasing magnitude and range of governmental functions as we move closer to a welfare State, more and more of our wealth consists of these new forms. Some of these forms of wealth may be in the nature of legal rights but the large majority of them are in the nature of privileges……….”
18. For achieving the goals of Justice and Equality set out in the Preamble, the State and its agencies/instrumentalities have to function through political entities and officers/officials at different levels. The laws enacted by Parliament and State Legislatures bestow upon them powers for effective implementation of the laws enacted for creation of an egalitarian society. The exercise of power by political entities and officers/officials for providing different kinds of services and benefits to the people always has an element of discretion, which is required to be used in larger public interest and for public good. In principle, no exception can be taken to the use of discretion by the political functionaries and officers of the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities provided that this is done in a rational and judicious manner without any discrimination against anyone. In our constitutional structure, no functionary of the State or public authority has an absolute or unfettered discretion. The very idea of unfettered discretion is totally incompatible with the doctrine of equality enshrined in the Constitution and is an antithesis to the concept of rule of law. 
19. In his work ‘Administrative Law’ (6th) Edition, Prof. H.W.R. Wade, highlighted distinction between powers of public authorities and those of private persons in the following words:
"... The common theme of all the authorities so far mentioned is that the notion of absolute or unfettered discretion is rejected. Statutory power conferred for public purposes is conferred as it were upon trust, no absolutely - that is to say, it can validly be used only in the right and proper way which Parliament when conferring it is presumed to have intended. Although the Crown's lawyers have argued in numerous cases that unrestricted permissive language confers unfettered discretion, the truth is that, in a system based on the rule of law, unfettered governmental discretion is a contradiction in terms."
Prof. Wade went on to say:
"...... The whole conception of unfettered discretion is inappropriate to a public authority, which possesses powers solely in order that it may use them for the public good. There is nothing paradoxical in the imposition of such legal limits. It would indeed be paradoxical if they were not imposed. Nor is this principle an oddity of British or American law; it is equally prominent in French law. Nor is it a special restriction which fetters only local authorities: it applies no less to ministers of the Crown. Nor is it confined to the sphere of administration: it operates wherever discretion is given for some public purpose, for example where a judge has a discretion to order jury trial. It is only where powers are given for the personal benefit of the person empowered that the discretion is absolute. Plainly this can have no application in public law.
For the same reasons there should in principle be no such thing as unreviewable administrative discretion, which should be just as much a contradiction in terms as unfettered discretion. The question which has to be asked is what is the scope of judicial review, and in a few special cases the scope for the review of discretionary decisions may be minimal. It remains axiomatic that all discretion is capable of abuse, and that legal limits to every power are to be found somewhere." 
20. Padfield v. Minister of Agriculture, Fishery and Food (1968) A.C. 997, is an important decision in the area of administrative law. In that case the Minister had refused to appoint a committee to investigate the complaint made by the members of the Milk Marketing Board that majority of the Board had fixed milk prices in a way that was unduly unfavourable to the complainants. The Minister's decision was founded on the reason that it would be politically embarrassing for him if he decided not to implement the committee's decision. While rejecting the theory of absolute discretion, Lord Reid observed:
"Parliament must have conferred the discretion with the intention that it should be used to promote the policy and objects of the Act; the policy and objects of the Act must be determined by construing the Act as a whole and construction is always a matter of law for the court. In a matter of this kind it is not possible to draw a hard and fast line, but if the Minister, by reason of his having misconstrued the Act or for any other reasons, so uses his discretion as to thwart or run counter to the policy and objects of the Act, then our law would be very defective if persons aggrieved were not entitled to the protection of the court."
21. In Breen v. Amalgamated Engineering Union (1971) 2 QB 175, Lord Denning MR said:
“The discretion of a statutory body is never unfettered. It is a discretion which is to be exercised according to law. That means at least this: the statutory body must be guided by relevant considerations and not by irrelevantly. It its decision is influenced by extraneous considerations which it ought not to have taken into account, then the decision cannot stand. No matter that the statutory body may have acted in good faith; nevertheless the decision will be set aside. That is established by Padfield v. Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which is a landmark in modern administrative law."
22. In Laker Airways Ltd. v. Department of Trade 1977 QB 643, Lord Denning discussed prerogative of the Minister to give directions to Civil Aviation Authorities overruling the specific provisions in the statute in the time of war and said:
"Seeing that prerogative is a discretion power to be exercised for the public good, it follows that its exercise can be examined by the Courts just as in other discretionary power which is vested in the executive." 
23. This Court has long ago discarded the theory of unfettered discretion. In S.G. Jaisinghani v. Union of India AIR 1967 SC 1427, Ramaswami, J. emphasised that absence of arbitrary power is the foundation of a system governed by rule of law and observed:
"In this context it is important to emphasize that the absence of arbitrary power is the first essential of the rule of law upon which our whole constitutional system is based. In a system governed by rule of law, discretion, when conferred upon executive authorities, must be confined within clearly defined limits. The rule of law from this point of view means that decisions should be made by the application of known principles and rules and, in general, such decisions should be predictable and the citizen should know where he is. If a decision is taken without any principle or without any rule it is unpredictable and such a decision is the antithesis of a decision taken in accordance with the rule of law. (See Dicey-"Law of the Constitution" - Tenth Edn., Introduction ex.). 'Law has reached its finest moments', stated Douglas, J. in United States v. Underlick (1951 342 US 98:96 Law Ed 113), "when it has freed man from the unlimited discretion of some ruler..... Where discretion is absolute, man has always suffered'. It is in this sense that the rule of law maybe said to be the sworn enemy of caprice. Discretion, as Lord Mansfield stated it in classic terms in the case of John Wilkes (1770 98 ER 327),'means sound discretion guided by law. It must be governed by rule, not humour it must not be arbitrary, vague and fanciful" 
24. In Ramana Dayaram Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India (supra), Bhagwati, J. referred to an article by Prof. Reich “The New Property” which was published in 73 Yale Law Journal. In the article, the learned author said, “that the Government action be based on standard  that are not arbitrary or unauthorized.” The learned Judge then quoted with approval the following observations made by Mathew, J. (as he then was) in V. Punnen Thomas v. State of Kerala AIR 1969 Ker. 81 (Full Bench): 
"The Government is not and should not be as free as an individual in selecting recipients for its largesses. Whatever its activities, the Government is still the Government and will be subject to the restraints inherent in its position in a democratic society. A democratic Government cannot lay down arbitrary and capricious standards for the choice of persons with whom alone it will deal."
Bhagwati, J. also noticed some of the observations made by Ray, C.J. in Eursian Equipments and Chemicals Ltd. v. State of West Bengal (1975) 1 SCC 70 who emphasized that when the Government is trading with public the democratic form of Government demands equality and absence of arbitrariness and discrimination in such transactions and held: 
“……….This proposition would hold good in all cases of dealing by the Government with the public, where the interest sought to be protected is a privilege. It must, therefore, be taken to be the law that where the Government is dealing with the public, whether by way of giving jobs or entering into contracts or issuing quotas or licences or granting other forms of largesse, the Government cannot act arbitrarily at its sweet will and, like a private individual, deal with any person it pleases, but its action must be in conformity with standard or norms which is not arbitrary, irrational or irrelevant. The power or discretion of the Government in the matter of grant of largesse including award of jobs, contracts, quotas, licences, etc. must be confined and structured by rational, relevant and non-discriminatory standard or norm and if the Government departs from such standard or norm in any particular case or cases, the action of the Government would be liable to be struck down, unless it can be shown by the Government that the departure was not arbitrary, but was based on some valid principle which in itself was not irrational, unreasonable or discriminatory.” 
25. In Kasturi Lal Lakshmi Reddy v. State of J And K (1980) 4 SCC 1, Bhagwati J. speaking for the Court observed:
“Where any governmental action fails to satisfy the test of reasonableness and public interest discussed above and is found to be wanting in the quality of reasonableness or lacking in the element of public interest, it would be liable to be struck down as invalid. It must follow as a necessary corollary from this proposition that the Government cannot act in a manner which would benefit a private party at the cost of the State; such an action would be both unreasonable and contrary to public interest. The Government, therefore, cannot, for example, give a contract or sell or lease out its property for a consideration less than the highest that can be obtained for it, unless of course there are other considerations which render it reasonable and in public interest to do so. Such considerations may be that some directive principle is sought to be advanced or implemented or that the contract or the property is given not with a view to earning revenue but for the purpose of carrying out a welfare scheme for the benefit of a particular group or section of people deserving it or that the person who has offered a higher consideration is not otherwise fit to be given the contract or the property. We have referred to these considerations only illustratively, for there may be an infinite variety of considerations which may have to be taken into account by the Government in formulating its policies and it is on a total  valuation of various considerations which have weighed with the Government in taking a particular action, that the court would have to decide whether the action of the Government is reasonable and in public interest. But one basic principle which must guide the court in arriving at its determination on this question is that there is always a presumption that the governmental action is reasonable and in public interest and it is for the party challenging its validity to show that it is wanting in reasonableness or is not informed with public interest. This burden is a heavy one and it has to be discharged to the satisfaction of the court by proper and adequate material. The court cannot lightly assume that the action taken by the Government is unreasonable or without public interest because, as we said above, there are a large number of policy considerations which must necessarily weigh with the Government in taking action and therefore the court would not strike down governmental action as invalid on this ground, unless it is clearly satisfied that the action is unreasonable or not in public interest. But where it is so satisfied, it would be the plainest duty of the court under the Constitution to invalidate the governmental action. This is one of the most important functions of the court and also one of the most essential for preservation of the rule of law. It is imperative in a democracy governed by the rule of law that governmental action must be kept within the limits of the law and if there is any transgression, the court must be ready to condemn it. It is a matter of historical experience that there is a tendency in every Government to assume more and more powers and since it is not an uncommon phenomenon in some countries that the legislative check is getting diluted, it is left to the court as the only other reviewing authority under the Constitution to be increasingly vigilant to ensure observance with the rule of law and in this task, the court must not flinch or falter. It may be pointed out that this ground of invalidity, namely, that the governmental action is unreasonable or lacking in the quality of public interest, is different from that of mala fides though it may, in a given case, furnish evidence of mala fides.” 
26. In Common Cause, A Registered Society v. Union of India (1996) 6 SCC 530 the two Judge Bench considered the legality of discretionary powers exercised by the then Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas in the matter of allotment of petrol pumps and gas agencies. While declaring that allotments made by the Minister were wholly arbitrary, nepotistic and motivated by extraneous considerations the Court said: 
“The Government today — in a welfare State — provides large number of benefits to the citizens. It distributes wealth in the form of allotment of plots, houses, petrol pumps, gas agencies, mineral leases, contracts, quotas and licences etc. Government distributes largesses in various forms. A Minister who is the executive head of the department concerned distributes these benefits and largesses. He is elected by the people and is elevated to a position where he holds a trust on behalf of the people. He has to deal with the people’s property in a fair and just manner. He cannot commit breach of the trust reposed in him by the people.”
27. The Court also referred to the reasons recorded in the orders passed by the Minister for award of dealership of petrol pumps and gas agencies and observed:
“24………..While Article 14 permits a reasonable classification having a rational nexus to the objective sought to be achieved, it does not permit the power to pick and choose arbitrarily out of several persons falling in the same category. A transparent and objective criteria/procedure has to be evolved so that the choice among the members belonging to the same class or category is based on reason, fair play and non-arbitrariness. It is essential to lay down as a matter of policy as to how preferences would be assigned between two persons falling in the same category. If there are two eminent sportsmen in distress and only one petrol pump is available, there should be clear, transparent and objective criteria/procedure to indicate who out of the two is to be preferred. Lack of transparency in the system promotes nepotism and arbitrariness. It is absolutely essential that the entire system should be transparent right from the stage of calling for the applications up to the stage of passing the orders of allotment.”
28. In Shrilekha Vidyarthi v. State of U.P. (1991) 1 SCC 212, the Court unequivocally rejected the argument based on the theory of absolute discretion of the administrative authorities and immunity of their action from judicial review and observed:
".... We have no doubt that the Constitution does not envisage or permit unfairness or unreasonableness in State actions in any sphere of its activity contrary to the professed ideals in the Preamble. In our opinion, it would be alien to the Constitutional Scheme to accept the argument of exclusion of Article 14 in contractual matters. The scope and permissible grounds of judicial review in such matters and the relief which may be available are different matters but that does not justify the view of its total exclusion. This is more so when the modern trend is also to examine the unreasonableness of a term in such contracts where the bargaining power is unequal so that these are not negotiated contracts but standard form contracts between unequals………………………..
Even assuming that it is necessary to import the concept of presence of some public element in a State action to attract Article 14 and permit judicial review, we have no hesitation in saying that the ultimate impact of all actions of the State or a public body being undoubtedly on public interest, the requisite public element for this purpose is present also in contractual matters. We, therefore, find it difficult and unrealistic to exclude the State actions in contractual matters, after the contract has been made, from the purview of judicial review to test its validity on the anvil of Article 14. 
It can no longer be doubted at this point of time that Article of the Constitution of India applies also to matters of governmental policy and if the policy or any action of the Government, even in contractual matters, fails to satisfy the test of reasonableness, it would be unconstitutional. (See Ramana Dayaram Shetty v. The International Airport Authority of India [(1979) 3 SCR 1014: AIR 1979 SC 1628] and Kasturi Lal Lakshmi Reddy v. State of Jammu and Kashmir [(1980) 3 SCR 1338: AIR 1980 SC 1992], In Col. A.S. Sangwan v. Union of India [(1980 (Supp) SCC 559 : AIR 1981 SC 1545], while the discretion to change the policy in exercise of the executive power, when not trammelledly the statute or rule, was held to be wide, it was emphasised as imperative and implicit in Article 14 of the Constitution that a change in policy must be made fairly and should not give the impression that it was so done arbitrarily or by any ulterior criteria. The wide sweep of Article 14 and the requirement of every State action qualifying for its validity on this touch-stone, irrespective of the field of activity of the State, has long been settled. Later decisions of this Court have reinforced the foundation of this tenet and it would be sufficient to refer only to two recent decisions of this Court for this purpose."
29. Similarly, in L.I.C. of India v. Consumer Education & Research Centre (1995) 5 SCC 482, the Court negatived the argument that exercise of executive power of the State was immune from judicial review and observed:
".... Every action of the public authority or the person acting in public interest or its acts give rise to public element, should be guided by public interest. It is the exercise of the public power or action hedged with public element becomes open to challenge. If it is shown that the exercise of the power is arbitrary, unjust and unfair it should be no answer for the State, its instrumentality, public authority or person whose acts have the insignia of public element to say that their actions are in the field of private law and they are free to prescribe any conditions or limitations in their actions as private citizens, similicitor, do in the field of private law. Its actions must be based on some rational and relevant principles. It must not be guided by traditional or irrelevant considerations.............
This Court has rejected the contention of an instrumentality or the State that its action is in the private law field and would be immune from satisfying the tests laid under Article 14. The dichotomy between public law and private law rights and remedies, though may not be obliterated by any straight jacket formula, it would depend upon the factual matrix. The adjudication of the dispute arising out of a contract would, therefore, depend upon facts and circumstances in a given case. The distinction between public law remedy and private law filed cannot be demarcated with precision. Each case will be examined on its facts and circumstances to find out the nature of the activity, scope and nature of the controversy. The distinction between public law and private law remedy has now become too thin and practicably obliterated....... 
In the sphere of contractual relations the State, its instrumentality, public authorities or those whose acts bear insignia of public element, action to public duty or obligation are enjoined to act in a manner i.e. fair, just and equitable, after taking objectively all the relevant options into consideration and in a manner that is reasonable, relevant and germane to effectuate the purpose for public good and in general public interest and it must not take any irrelevant or irrational factors into consideration or arbitrary in its decision. Duty to act fairly is part of fair procedure envisaged under Articles 14 and 21. Every activity of the public authority or those under public duty or obligation must be informed by reason and guided by the public interest."
30. In New India Public School v. HUDA (1996) 5 SCC 510, this Court approved the judgment of the Division Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Seven Seas Educational Society v. HUDA AIR 1996 (P&H) 229 : (1996) 113 PLR 17, whereby allotment of land in favour of the appellants was quashed and observed:
".... A reading thereof, in particular Section 15(3) read with Regulation 3(c) does indicate that there are several modes of disposal of the property acquired by HUDA for public purpose. One of the modes of transfer of property as indicated in Subsection (3) of Section 15 read with sub-regulation (c) of Regulation 5 is public auction, allotment or otherwise. When public authority discharges its public duty the word "otherwise" would be construed to be consistent with the public purpose and clear and unequivocal guidelines or rules are necessary and not at the whim and fancy of the public authorities or under their garb or cloak for any extraneous consideration. It would depend upon the nature of the scheme and object of public purpose sought to be achieved. In all cases relevant criterion should be pre-determined by specific rules or regulations and published for the public. Therefore, the public authorities are required to make necessary specific regulations or valid guidelines to exercise their discretionary powers, otherwise, the salutory procedure would be by public auction. The Division Bench, therefore, has rightly pointed out that in the absence of such statutory regulations exercise of discretionary power to allot sites to private institutions or persons was not correct in law."
31. What needs to be emphasized is that the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities cannot give largesse to any person according to the sweet will and whims of the political entities and/or officers of the State. Every action/decision of the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities to give largesse or confer benefit must be founded on a sound, transparent, discernible and well defined policy, which shall be made known to the public by publication in the Official Gazette and other recognized modes of publicity and such policy must be implemented/executed by adopting a nondiscriminatory and non-arbitrary method irrespective of the class or category of persons proposed to be benefitted by the policy. The distribution of largesse like allotment of land, grant of quota, permit licence etc. by the State and its agencies/instrumentalities should always be done in a fair and equitable manner and the element of favoritism or nepotism shall not influence the exercise of discretion, if any, conferred upon the particular functionary or officer of the State.
32. We may add that there cannot be any policy, much less, a rational policy of allotting land on the basis of applications made by individuals, bodies, organizations or institutions de hors an invitation or advertisement by the State or its agency/instrumentality. By entertaining applications made by individuals, organisations or institutions for allotment of land or for grant of any other type of largesse the State cannot exclude other eligible persons from lodging competing claim. Any allotment of land or grant of other form of largesse by the State or its agencies/instrumentalities by treating the exercise as a private venture is liable to be treated as arbitrary, discriminatory and an act of favoritism and/or nepotism violating the soul of the equality clause embodied in Article 14 of the Constitution. 
33. This, however, does not mean that the State can never allot land to the institutions/organisations engaged in educational, cultural, social or philanthropic activities or are rendering service to the Society except by way of auction. Nevertheless, it is necessary to observe that once a piece of land is earmarked or identified for allotment to institutions/organisations engaged in any such activity, the actual exercise of allotment must be done in a manner consistent with the doctrine of equality. The competent authority should, as a matter of course, issue an advertisement incorporating therein the conditions of eligibility so as to enable all similar situated eligible persons, institutions/organisations to participate in the process of allotment, whether by way of auction or otherwise. In a given case the Government may allot land at a fixed price but in that case also allotment must be preceded by a wholesome exercise consistent with Article 14 of the Constitution.
34. The allotment of land by the State or its agencies/instrumentalities to abody/organization/institution which carry the tag of caste, community or religion is not only contrary to the idea of Secular Democratic Republic but is also fraught with grave danger of dividing the society on caste or communal lines. The allotment of land to such bodies/organisations/institutions on political considerations or by way of favoritism and/or nepotism or with a view to nurture the vote bank for future is constitutionally impermissible.

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