While reading down Section 32-F of Maharashtra Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, the Supreme Court reiterated that while the law may recognise 'degrees of harm', but the classification should never be arbitrary, artificial or evasive.
The bench of Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice R. Subhash Reddy and Justice Surya Kant, in Vasant Ganpat Padave (D) vs. Anant Mahadev Sawant (D), was concerned with the interpretation of Section 32-F of Maharashtra Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1948. It held that Section 32-F to be read in conformity with Article 14 of the Constitution of India
The said provision reads: Notwithstanding anything contained in the preceding sections,— (a) where the landlord is a minor, or a widow, or a person subject to any mental or physical disability, the tenant shall have the right to purchase such land under Section 32 within one year from the expiry of the period during which such landlord is entitled to terminate the tenancy under Section 31 and for enabling the tenant to exercise the right of purchase, the landlord shall send an intimation to the tenant of the fact that he has attained majority, before the expiry of the period during which such landlord is entitled to terminate the tenancy under Section 31.
The scheme of the Statute is that, on Tillers' Day, the landlord is divested of title and the tenant is vested with title to agricultural land which he cultivates by dint of his own effort. The effect of Section 32-F is that the cultivating tenant in all cases where the landlord is a minor, a widow or a person subjected to a disability, does not statutorily become owner of the agricultural land cultivated personally by him on Tillers' Day. The bench, examining the reasons, observed:
"This is for the reason that under Section 2(6) Explanation- I, these three categories of landlords are deemed to cultivate personally through such tenant. The entitlement of terminating a tenancy under any one of these three categories is contained in Section 31(3). In any of these three cases, the moment the disability ceases i.e. that the land in question no longer belongs to a minor, as he has become major, or to a widow, as she has died or transferred her share with permission under Section 63, or to a person whose mental or physical disability ceases, one year is granted for such persons to apply for resumption of the land on the ground that such persons wish to personally cultivate the said land, pursuant to which an application for possession of land under Section 29 may then be made. In case this is done within the time prescribed, the tenant's right to purchase does not fructify. It is only when this is not done within the period of one year, as aforestated, that the postponed right of the tenant springs into being."
Examining the provisions of Section 32-F, the Court noted that it would be anomalous for a tenant to be told that if his landlord happened to be a minor who has attained majority later, he must first be intimated of this fact before he can meaningfully exercise his right of purchase; whereas to a tenant who is similarly situate when the landlord is a widow, in which case no such intimation need be made, the tenant would suffer for no fault of his as the tenant would have no knowledge of the date of death of the widow (which is a special fact known only to her family), such tenant's right of purchase being extinguished by time.
While defending the classification made in favour of tenants of minor landlord, it was contended that in the present case, the legislature has recognised a certain degree of harm, namely, to tenants of minor landlords and may, therefore, confine itself to such cases where the need is deemed to be clearest. Referring to proposition set out in Re Special Courts Bill, 1978, the bench observed that law may recognise degrees of harm, but in so doing the classification should never be arbitrary, artificial or evasive.
The bench observed:
What was forgotten by the draftsman when the addition to Section 32-F(1)(a) was made was the fact that Section 32F(1)(a) referred to three categories of landlords and not only one. The words added by the 1969 amendment thus gave relief to tenants only qua minor landlords and not the other two 57 categories. Obviously, the classification made in favour of tenants of minor landlords as opposed to tenants of landlords of the other two categories is a classification which is arbitrary in nature. This being the case, such classification would ordinarily have to be struck down as being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
The bench then, instead of striking down such classification as a whole, struck down the words "..of the fact that he has attained majority..". It also held that the successor-in-interest of a widow is obliged to send an intimation to the tenant of cessation of interest of the widow to enable the tenant to exercise his right of purchase.
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