New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday said that a verdict by its five-judge constitution bench in March relating to compensation under the Land Acquisition Act had left “some aspects unsaid” and questions that “required discussion”.
Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, who headed the three-judge bench, also verbally remarked that the March verdict had “given the government laxity”.
The bench was hearing a batch of 600 petitions related to land acquisition that needed to be adjudicated on the basis of legal principles that were enumerated in the March order.
In March, a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra had ruled that land acquisition proceedings will not lapse if compensation is deposited in the treasury, not requiring an actual payment to a landowner. A review against this judgment is pending before the top court.
The CJI, who called upon solicitor general Tushar Mehta to assist the court, sought to know for how long can the government not pay and still claim acquisition of the land.
CJI Bobde said the Land Acquisition Act has fixed a five-year period for the government to pay compensation after acquiring land. However, the March verdict does not lay down any time frame.
The bench then adjourned the matter by two weeks, saying it needs to study the verdict in detail. In the meantime, it said, lawyers have to submit a one-page explainer about their cases and how the landowners have been affected by a 2018 verdict on land acquisition.
Controversy surrounding 2018 verdict
In March, a five-judge constitution bench headed by Justice Mishra had upheld a 2018 verdict that proceedings will not lapse if compensation has been deposited in the treasury, not requiring an actual payment to the landowner.
The earlier judgment was delivered by a three-judge bench that was also headed by Justice Mishra.
He had courted controversy when he refused to recuse himself from the case in March. The landowners wanted him to not hear the matter because he had authored the 2018 verdict.
The 2018 verdict had also snowballed into a debate among top judges when a bench of Justices Mishra, A. Goel and M. Shantanagoudar had overruled a 2014 ruling in the Pune Municipal Corporation case.
In a relief to landowners, a three-judge bench, led by Justice R.M. Lodha, had in 2014 held that acquisition proceedings initiated under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 would lapse if the land was not taken control of, or if compensation was not paid to displaced farmers.
But in 2018, Justices Goel, Mishra and Shantanagoudar declared the 2014 ruling “per incuriam”. It literally translates to “through lack of care”. In such scenarios, a judgment can be declared to be without any legal force, and is then not treated as a valid precedent.
Days after this pronouncement, another three-judge bench comprising Justices M.B. Lokur, Kurien Joseph (both were part of the 2014 bench), and Deepak Gupta, took a strong exception to it. They felt that a three-judge bench cannot overrule another three-judge bench’s verdict and referred the matter to a larger bench.
‘How long will acquisition not lapse if compensation not paid’
When the 600 petitions were listed Monday, CJI Bobde told Mehta that the bench would like to be clear about certain aspects, and sought his assistance.
Mehta told the bench that the matters were pending before the top court and several high courts since the constitution bench was seized of the larger issues.
“The judgment of the constitution bench would operate differently depending upon the facts of each case. When the possession was taken, what was the nature of possession, what was the date of award, whether there was any stay intervening because the constitution bench judgment says now that the stay period will have to be excluded,” Mehta told the court.
However, the CJI asked, “Suppose, there is a property which the government has not taken possession of and it has not paid compensation, then the acquisition will lapse. On the other hand, if the government has taken possession but not paid compensation, in any way, the acquisition does not lapse. For how long is the question.”
He also said, “Five years period is provided by parliamentary law. If possession is taken but compensation is not paid, then the finding is that the acquisition does not lapse. For how long will it not lapse if the compensation is not paid? Forever?”