Land Reforms

Why the Supreme Court allowed a review of its 2022 judgment on ‘Shamlat deh’ land rights


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Land and Property rights in India;

Mains level: Judicial Interventions; Judicial Review;

Why in the News?

To protect the rights of village landowners in Haryana, the Supreme Court has permitted a review of a 2022 judgment by Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian that allowed gram panchayats to acquire ‘shamlat deh’ land.


What is ‘Shamlat deh’?

  • It refers to common land in the village, formed by multiple landowners each contributing an equal portion of their holdings to serve the “common purposes” of the village community. It is kept aside for common use in villages, as part of the Punjab Land Revenue Act of 1887.
  • Article 31A was inserted by the First Amendment Act of 1951 in the Indian Constitution. It aimed to protect laws related to agrarian reforms and the acquisition of estates.
  • According to the Supreme Court (April 2022), such land should be utilized by panchayats only for the needs of villagers. No part of the land can be re-partitioned amongst the proprietors, and such land would not be available for sale.
  • A Bench of Justices B R Gavai and Sandeep Mehta reopened the challenge to the 1992 amendment on May 17, 2024, after observing that the 2022 decision disregarded an important and relevant Constitution Bench decision in the case of Bhagat Ram vs State of Punjab (1967).

Bhagat Ram: Clarifying the Meaning of Land Acquisition under Article 31A:

  • In 1967, a five-judge Bench reviewed a land consolidation scheme for the village of Dolike Sunderpur that reserved lands for common purposes and diverted the income to the panchayat.
    • Landowners’ Argument: The scheme violated the second provision of Article 31A, which prevents acquiring land below the ceiling limit without compensation at market value.
    • State’s Argument: The reservation for the panchayat was not land acquisition since the income would benefit the village.
  • Ajit Singh v State of Punjab (1967): Distinguished land acquisition from modification or extinguishment of land rights.
  • SC Decision: The panchayat was effectively acquiring land by reserving its income, making the state the beneficiary. The court ruled that the second provision of Article 31A applied. Punjab argued the acquisition predated the 17th amendment, but the SC noted the scheme’s implementation was stayed, hence possession and control had not been transferred.

Does Shamlat Land Belong to the Landowners or the Panchayat?

  • In 2003, the Punjab and Haryana High Court reviewed a challenge to the 1992 amendment to the Punjab Act that vested control of ‘shamlat deh’ land in Haryana with the gram panchayat.
  • Petitioners’ Argument: The Landowners however argued that the amendment did not allow panchayats to control the land for common purposes without compensation, violating Article 31A.
  • High Court Decision: The court distinguished between land reserved for common purposes under the Consolidation Act (vested with the gram panchayat) and land contributed by proprietors but not reserved under the consolidation scheme (which could not vest with the panchayat without compensation).
    • The decision relied on the SC’s Bhagat Ram ruling that acquiring land without compensation violates the second proviso of Article 31A.

SC Allows Review of 2022 Judgment:

  • The 2022 Supreme Court decision by Justices Gupta and Ramasubramanian overruled the 2003 High Court decision, finding no need for compensation as Article 31 had been omitted. The court ruled that the panchayat merely managed the land on behalf of landholders and that control was vested in the panchayat upon assignment.
  • Karnail Singh Review: Justices Gavai and Mehta reopened the challenge, noting the 2022 decision’s cursory reference to Bhagat Ram without addressing why the High Court’s reliance on it was wrong.
    • The court found that ignoring a Constitution Bench decision was a manifest error, justifying a review.
  • Recalled the 2022 SC decision: The 2022 decision was recalled, and the challenge to the 2003 High Court decision was set to be reheard, starting on August 7, 2024.

Way Forward:

  • Need Comprehensive Judicial Reviews: Conduct detailed reviews of prior relevant judgments to provide clear, well-founded reasoning in court decisions.
  • Need Clear Compensation Guidelines: Establish explicit guidelines for compensation in land acquisition cases, particularly those involving common land like ‘shamlat deh’, to protect landowners’ rights.

Mains PYQ:

Q The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has come into effect from Ist January 2014. What are the key issues which would get addressed with the Act in place? What implications would it have on industrialization and agriculture in India? (UPSC IAS/2014)

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