Illegal land acquisition: SC says State has a higher responsibility to uphold rule of law

The Supreme Court bench, presided by Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, directed the Himachal Pradesh Government to compensate the petitioner, dispossessed of his land in 1972-73


THE Supreme Court held on Wednesday that nobody can be deprived of liberty or property without due process, or authorization of law. The recognition of this dates back to the 1700s to the decision of the King’s Bench Court in Britain in Entick vs. Carrington (1765) and by the Supreme Court itself in Wazir Chand vs. The State of Himachal Pradesh (1954), the court observed. Further, in several judgments, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that rather than enjoying a wider bandwidth of lenience, the State often has a higher responsibility in demonstrating that it has acted within the confines of legality, and therefore, not tarnished the basic principle of the rule of law, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, who authored the judgment on behalf of a division bench also comprising Justice P.S. Narasimha, observed.

When it comes to the subject of private property, the Supreme Court has upheld the high threshold of legality that must be met to dispossess an individual of their property, and even more so when done by the State, Justice Bhat added.

In the instant case, the Supreme Court considered whether the State could, merely on the ground of delay and laches, evade its legal responsibility towards those from whom their private property was expropriated. Justices Bhat and Narasimha held in this case that facts warranted intervention on the grounds of equity and fairness.

The bench reasoned that when seen holistically, it is apparent that the State’s actions, or lack thereof, have in fact compounded the injustice meted out to the appellants and compelled them to approach this court, albeit belatedly. In the instant case, the initiation of acquisition proceedings initially in the 1990s occurred only at the behest of the Himachal Pradesh High Court. Even after such judicial intervention, the State continued to only extend the benefit of the court’s directions to those who specifically approached the courts. “The State’s lackadaisical conduct is discernible from this action of initiating acquisition proceedings selectively, only in respect to the lands of those writ petitioners who had approached the court in earlier proceedings, and not other land owners, pursuant to the orders dated [April 23, 2007] and [December 20, 2013] respectively”, the bench stated. In this manner, at every stage, the State sought to shirk its responsibility of acquiring land required for public use in the manner prescribed by law, the bench observed.

“The State cannot shield itself behind the ground of delay and laches in such a situation; there cannot be a ‘limitation’ to doing justice”, Justice Bhat wrote in his judgment.

“The facts of the present case reveal that the State has, in a clandestine and arbitrary manner, actively tried to limit disbursal of compensation as required by law, only to those for which it was specifically prodded by the Courts, rather than to all those who are entitled”, the court observed.

In the instant case, the subject land was acquired for the construction of the Narag Fagla Road, in 1972-73, and much like the claimants before the reference court, the appellants in this case too were illegally dispossessed without following due process of law, thus resulting in violation of Article 31 and warranting the High Court’s intervention under Article 226 jurisdiction. In the absence of written consent to voluntarily give up their land, the appellants were entitled to compensation in terms of law, the bench held.

The bench exercised the Supreme Court’s extraordinary jurisdiction under Articles 136 and 142 of the Constitution to direct the state government to treat the subject lands as a deemed acquisition and appropriately disburse compensation to the appellants in the same terms as the order of the reference court passed in 2005 in a similar case. The appellants would also be entitled to consequential benefits of solatium, and interest on all sums payable under law with effect from October 16, 2001 (the date of issuance of notification under Section 4 of Land Acquisition Act, 1894), till the date of the impugned judgment passed by the High Court of Himachal Pradesh on September 12, 2013, the bench ruled.

Setting aside the High Court’s judgment, the bench also directed the state government to pay legal costs and expenses of Rs. 50,000 to the appellants, given the disregard for their fundamental rights which had caused them to approach the Supreme Court and receive remedy decades after the act of dispossession.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s judgment.