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State can't shield itself behind Ground of delay and laches, there can't be "limitation" to justice

THE STATE CANNOT SHIELD ITSELF BEHIND THE GROUND OF DELAY AND LACHES, THERE CANNOT BE A ‘LIMITATION’ TO DOING JUSTICE: SC

Cause Title: Sukh Dutt Ratra and Another v. State of Himachal Pradesh and Others

Case Number: Civil Appeal No 2773/2022, Arising Out of S.L.P. (C) Diary No. 13202/2020

Judgment Date: 06/04/2022

Quorum: Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha

Counsel for Appellants: Mr. Mahesh Thakur

Counsel for Respondents: Mr. Abinav Mukerji

Author: Pragash B, Advocate, Madurai Bench of Madras High Court



Background of the Case

The appellants claim to be owners of land situated at Mauzal Sarol Basach, Tehsil Pachhad, District Sirmaour, Himachal Pradesh. The Respondent utilised the subject land and adjoining lands for the construction of the ‘Narag Fagla Road’ in 1972-1973. But no land acquisition proceedings were initiated nor compensation given to the appellants or owners of the adjoining land.

The Honourable High Court of Himachal Pradesh, in Devender Singh and Others v. State of Himachal Pradesh, CWP No. 816/1992, directed the State to initiate land acquisition proceedings under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. A notification was issued on 16.10.2001 and the award was passed on 20.12.2001 fixing compensation at Rs. 30,000 per bigha. Proceedings under, Section 18 of the Act for enhancement of compensation, were initiated by ten neighbouring land owners (Mata Ram and others), whose lands were similarly utilised for the construction of the same road and an award dated 04.10.2005 was passed by reference court in their favour. The reference petitioners were entitled to enhanced compensation of Rs. 39,000 per bigha; solatium of 30% per annum on the market value of the land; additional compensation at the rate of 12% per annum under Section 23(1A) of the Act, with effect from 16.10.2001 till the date of making the award by the Collector, 20.12.2001; 9% interest per annum from 16.10.2001 for a period of one year and 15% thereafter per annum, till the date of payment. In 2009, the High Court in RFA No. 1-9/2006 dismissed the appeal against this order by those claimants, who were seeking statutory interest from the date of taking possession.

Similarly situated land owners, filed writ proceedings before the High Court but the Honourable High Court in CWP No. 1192/2004 filed by one Anakh Singh, through its order dated 23.04.2007 directed to acquire lands of the writ petitioners under the Act, with consequential benefits. Subsequently, other similarly situated owners also received the benefit of these directions through the order dated 20.12.2013.

The appellants filed a writ petition in CWP No. 7873/2011 before the Honourable High Court seeking compensation for the subject land or initiation of acquisition proceedings under the Act. It was held 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. Aggrieved, the appellants have approached the Honourable Supreme Court of India.

Question Placed:

Can the State, merely on the ground of delay and laches, evade its legal responsibility towards those from whom private property has been expropriated? (Para 16)

Findings of the Honourable Court

The Honourable Supreme Court of India observed that when it comes to the subject of private property the highest threshold of legality must be met, to dispossess an individual of their property, and even more so when done by the State (Para 15). Given the important protection extended to an individual vis-à-vis their private property and the high threshold the State must meet while acquiring land (Para 16).

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 the Honourable Supreme Court of India, 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 only to 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 23.04.2007 in CWP. No. 1192/2004 and 20.12.2013 in CWP No. 1356/2010. 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 (Para 17). The State cannot shield behind the ground of delay and laches a situation; there cannot be a ‘limitation’ to doing justice.

The Honourable Apex Court of India observed that

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 y the Courts, rather than to all those who are entitled. This arbitrary action, which is also violative of the appellants’ prevailing Article 31 right, undoubtedly warranted consideration, and intervention by the High Court, under its Article 226 jurisdiction.” (Para 19)

The Court also stated that the contentions raised by the State do not inspire confidence and deserve to be rejected. The State has not substantiated the plea of appellants’ alleged verbal consent or the lack of objection. The State was 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 compensation has been paid. It is pertinent to note that this was the State’s position, and subsequent findings of the High Court in 2007 as well, in the other writ proceedings. (Para 21)

The Court also observed that the contention that since the property is not adjoining to that of the appellants, it disentitles them from claiming benefit on the ground of parity cannot be accepted. Despite it not being adjoining (which is admitted in the rejoinder affidavit), it is clear that the subject land was acquired for construction of the Narag Fagla Road without following due process of law. In the absence of written consent to voluntarily give up their land, the appellants were entitled to compensation in terms of law. (Para 22)

The Honourable Court held that

In view of the above discussion, in view of this court’s extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 136 and 142 of the Constitution, the State is hereby 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 in Land Ref. Petition No. 10-LAC/4 of 2004 (and consolidated matters). The Respondent-State is directed, consequently to ensure that the appropriate Land Acquisition Collector computes the compensation, and disburses it to the appellants, within four months from delay. 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.

For the above reasons, the appeal is allowed and the impugned order of the High Court is hereby set aside. Given the disregard for the appellants’ fundamental rights which has caused them to approach this court and receive remedy decades after the act of dispossession, we also deem it appropriate to direct the Respondent-State to pay legal costs and expenses of Rs. 50,000 to the appellants. Pending applications, if any, are hereby disposed of.

Cases Referred

1. State of Uttar Pradesh v. Manohar, (2005) 2 SCC 126.

2. Tukaram Kana Joshi and Others v. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, 2012 (13) SCR 29.

3. Air India Limited v. Vishal Capoor, 2005 Supp (3) SCR 670.

4. Vidya Devi v. State of Himachal Pradesh, (2020) 2 SCC 569.

5. State of Maharashtra v. Digambar, 1995 Supp (1) SCR 492.

6. State of Madhya Pradesh and Another v. Bhailal Bhai and Others, 1964 (6) SCR 261.

7. Brijesh Kumar and Others v. State of Haryana, (2014) 11 SCC 351.

8. Entick v. Carrington, [1765] EWHC (KB) 198.

9. Wazir Chand v. The State of Himachal Pradesh, 1955 (1) SCR 408.

10. Bishandas v. State of Punjab, 1962 (2) SCR 69.

11. State of Uttar Pradesh and Others v. Dharmander Prasad Singh and Others, 1989 (1) SCR 176.

12. Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation v. Balwant Regular Motor Service, 1969 (1) SCR 808.

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