Public Purpose or Private Interest? The Supreme Court of India’s Scrutiny of Land Acquisition for a University Project in Tribal Areas

by | May 15, 2023

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About Chinmaya Jain

Chinmaya Jain is an undergraduate student pursuing a BA/LLB (Hons) at the Indian National Law University, Delhi. He is the founder of Collective Environmental Action and a student assistant at the Centre for Environmental Law, Policy, and Research at NLU, Delhi.

The Supreme Court of India recently delivered a landmark judgment in Anil Agarwal Foundation Etc v State of Orissa & Ors, quashing the land acquisition proceedings initiated by the State Government in favor of a private company setting up a university project in the tribal areas of Orissa. The Court held that the acquisition was not for a public purpose and that the state government failed at (1) hearing objections and, (2) obtaining consent from the concerned tribes. The Court thus quashed the grant of government land to the company as it violated the constitutional rights of the tribal people.

Significance of the Judgment

Firstly, this finding reaffirms the principle that land acquisition for a private company cannot be justified as a public purpose unless it is shown that it is inextricably linked with the welfare of the public (or a section thereof). The Court observed that merely because a project is educational or charitable in nature does not automatically make it a public purpose, especially when it involves large-scale displacement of tribal people and destruction of their natural resources.

Secondly, the judgment underscores the importance of following due process and safeguarding the rights of affected parties in land acquisition proceedings. The Court found that the State Government had issued notifications under Section 4(1) and Section 6 of The Land Acquisition Act 1894 (the Act), without giving any opportunity to the tribal people to file their objections or to seek a personal hearing under Section 5A of the Act. The Court also found that the State Government had not obtained the consent of the concerned tribes as required by Section 41 of the Act, which is a condition for acquiring land in a Scheduled Area. The Court held these violations vitiated the entire acquisition process and rendered it null and void.

Importantly, this case highlights the need to protect the constitutional rights of tribal people who are vulnerable to exploitation and displacement by powerful interests. The Court held that the grant of government land to the company under Rule 5 of the Orissa Government Land Settlement Rules 1962 was discriminatory as it ignored the rights and interests of the tribal people who had been residing on the land for generations. The Court also held that the grant violated the right to life and livelihood of the tribal people under Article 21 of the Constitution, as it deprived them of their natural resources and cultural identity. The Court further found that the grant infringed the right to equality under Article 14 and the right to freedom of occupation under Article 19 of the Constitution, as it favoured a private company over the tribal people without a reasonable basis.

Is the Judgment enough?

In light of this judgment, it becomes important to look back on the recommendation of the Xaxa Committee, which envisaged more rights for tribal populations in case of acquisition by a company for private purposes. The Committee suggested that tribal communities should have the right to refuse land acquisition and to access and manage surrounding forests and other common property resources. Tribal lands being appropriated by arbitrary actions of the state has been a recurring problem in India; time and again courts have had to intervene to safeguard the rights of the indigenous peoples.

Significantly, the Central Government enacted the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 in which powers to regulate the lands were granted to the local self-government of the population living in 5th Schedule areas. However, the implementation of the Act was designated to respective state governments and still remains largely unrealised. States such as Orissa have not even made rules to apply the Act, which explicitly provides rights to panchayats in these areas to regulate the acquisition of lands within their jurisdiction. Proper implementation of the statutory instrument is essential to ensure that the rights of the tribal population are protected. It is critical that systems and safeguards such as these be implemented so that state governments do not have the power to arbitrarily infringe on the rights of tribal populations, in order to protect the endangered ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.

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