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Understanding the Olga Tellis Judgement

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April 26, 2022

Why in news?

The Olga Tellis judgement has become relevant to the recent Supreme Court judgement on Jahangirpuri case.

What is the Jahangirpuri case about?

  • Recently, a fleet of bulldozers descended on Jahangirpuri in Delhi to demolish buildings, petty shops, and the entrance gate of a mosque.
  • Soon after the demolitions started, the Supreme Court in an urgent hearing ordered that “status quo” be maintained until further orders.
  • The Supreme Court held that pavement dwellers are different from trespassers which may become a game-changer in the Jahangirpuri case.

To know more about the Jahangirpuri eviction drive, click here

What is the Olga Tellis judgement?

  • Case background- In 1981, the State of Maharashtra and the Bombay Municipal Corporation decided that pavement and slum dwellers in Bombay city should be evicted.
  • Some demolitions were carried out before the case was brought to the Bombay High Court.
  • While they conceded that they did not have any fundamental right to put up huts on pavements or public roads.
  • Questions before Supreme Court- The case came up before the Supreme Court on larger questions of law.
    • Whether eviction of a pavement dweller would amount to depriving him/her of their livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution?
    • Whether the provisions in the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, allowing the removal of encroachments without prior notice, were arbitrary and unreasonable?
    • Whether it was constitutionally impermissible to characterise pavement dwellers as trespassers?
  • State government’s defence- The State government and the corporation countered that pavement dwellers should be estopped.
  • Estoppel is a judicial device whereby a court may prevent or estop a person from making assertions.
  • Estoppel may prevent them from contending that the shacks constructed by them on the pavements cannot be demolished because of their right to livelihood.

How did the Supreme Court rule?

  • Eviction- In the Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1985, the Bench threw out the government’s argument of estoppel, saying that there can be no estoppel against the Constitution.
  • It agreed that pavement dwellers do occupy public spaces unauthorised.
  • However, the pavement dwellers too have a right to life (which includes the right to livelihood) and dignity.
  • Removing encroachments without prior notice- The court held that such arbitrary powers are designed to operate as an “exception” and not the “general rule.”
  • It also said that they should be given a chance to be heard and a reasonable opportunity to depart before expelling them by force.
  • Pavement dwellers as trespassers- The court objected to authorities treating pavement dwellers as mere trespassers.
  • The pavement dwellers manage to find a habitat in places which are mostly filthy or marshy, out of sheer helplessness.
  • The court had reasoned that encroachments committed by them are involuntary acts as they are compelled by inevitable circumstances and are not guided by choice.
  • Besides, the court noted, even trespassers should not be evicted by using force greater than what is reasonable and appropriate.

 

Reference

  1. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/understanding-the-olga-tellis-judgment/article65351138.ece?homepage=true
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