“State cannot hide behind delay & laches to evade it’s responsibility after acquiring land. There cannot be a ‘limitation’ to doing justice”, holds SC; Land Owners get compensated after decades

Supreme Court: In a case where the bench of S. Ravindra Bhat* and PS Narsimha, JJ was posed with the question as to whether the State can, merely on the ground of delay and laches, evade its legal responsibility towards those from whom private property has been expropriated, answering in negative, the bench held that the State cannot shield itself behind the ground of delay and laches as there cannot be a ‘limitation’ to doing justice.

Factual Background

The State of Himachal Pradesh utilised the subject land and adjoining lands for the construction of the ‘Narag Fagla Road’ in 1972-73, but allegedly no land acquisition proceedings were initiated, nor compensation given to the appellants or owners of the adjoining land.

Pursuant to a judgment by the Himachal Pradesh High Court directing the State to initiate land acquisition proceedings, a notification under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (hereafter ‘Act’) was issued on 16.10.2001 (published on 30.10.2001) and the award was passed on 20.12.2001 fixing compensation at ₹30,000 per bigha.

After a writ petition by similarly situated land owners was allowed by the High Court with the direction to acquire lands of the writ petitioners under the Act, with consequential benefits, the appellants approached the High Court in 2011, seeking compensation for the subject land or initiation of acquisition proceedings under the Act.

Relying on a Full bench decision of the High Court, it was held by the High Court in the impugned judgment that the matter involved disputed questions of law and fact for determination on the starting point of limitation, which could not be adjudicated in writ proceedings. The writ petition was disposed of, with liberty to file a civil suit in accordance with law.

Analysis

Right to property – Importance

While the right to property is no longer a fundamental right, it is pertinent to note that at the time of dispossession of the subject land, this right was still included in Part III of the Constitution. The right against deprivation of property unless in accordance with procedure established by law, continues to be a constitutional right under Article 300-A.

When it comes to the subject of private property, this 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.

Can the State, merely on the ground of delay and laches, evade its legal responsibility towards those from whom private property has been expropriated?

The Court considered the facts of the present case that revealed 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. This arbitrary action, which is also violative of the appellants’ prevailing Article 31 right (at the time of cause of action), undoubtedly warranted consideration, and intervention by the High Court, under its Article 226 jurisdiction.

Noticing that at every stage, the State sought to shirk its responsibility of acquiring land required for public use in the manner prescribed by law, the Court observed 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. The initiation of acquisition proceedings initially in the 1990s occurred only at the behest of the 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.”

The Court also noticed that the State had merely averred to the appellants’ alleged verbal consent or the lack of objection, but had not placed any material on record to substantiate this plea. It was also unable to produce any evidence indicating that the land of the appellants had been taken over or acquired in the manner known to law, or that they had ever paid any compensation.

Further, despite the property not being adjoining, the subject land was acquired for the same reason – construction of the Narag Fagla Road, in 1972-73, and much like the claimants before the reference court, these appellants 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. Hence, in the absence of written consent to voluntarily give up their land, the appellants were entitled to compensation in terms of law.

Ruling

The State was, hence, directed 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 dated 04.10.2005 and to consequently to ensure that the appropriate Land Acquisition Collector computes the compensation, and disburses it to the appellants, within four months from today. The appellants would also be entitled to consequential benefits of solatium, and interest on all sums payable under law w.e.f 16.10.2001 (i.e. date of issuance of notification under Section 4 of the Act), till the date of the impugned judgment, i.e. 12.09.2013.

Given the disregard for the appellants’ fundamental rights for decades after the act of dispossession, the Court also directed the State to pay legal costs and expenses of ₹ 50,000 to the appellants.

[Sukh Dutt Ratra v. State of Himachal Pradesh, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 410, decided on 06.04.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice S. Ravindra Bhat


Counsels

For appellants: Advocate Mahesh Thakur

For State: Advocate Abhinav Mukerji

One comment

  • This judgment may be helpful to MSEs whose legitimate claim was declined by Sole Arbitrator on the point of LIMITATION even after the reference was validly made by HMSEFC under the provisions of The MSMED Act, 2006 for DELAYED release of Security-Performance Guarantee amount with-held since 2014 and released in 2021 that too after initiation of arbitration proceedings ?

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