The papers today write about a petition filed in the Supreme Court stating that the ‘Right to Property’ must be brought back to the Constitution thus reversing the 44th Amendment of the Constitution that removed this right.
This is an interesting development; especially after the case of IR Coelho v. State of Tamil Nadu, where a nine judge bench in 2007 opened up the ambit of judicial review stating that even constitutional amendments have to pass the test of some basic fundamental rights (14, 19 and 21). In this post I propose to talk about the history of the ‘Right to Property’ and how this petition affects the precedents in this matter.
Under the Original Constitution, the right to property was guaranteed in two places; as a positive right to acquire under Article 19 (1)(f) and as a negative right under Article 31 where no person shall be deprived of his property save by the authority of law. Article 31 was subjected to various amendments where the nature of this right was changed (Articles 31-A and 31-B) and has been the subject of numerous litigation. All this was later brought to a stop when the 44th Amendment removed this right from Part III and inserted Article 300 – A in the Constitution.
As rightly said in the present petition before the Court, the idea behind the removal of this right by the Moraji Desai government was the abolishment of the zamindari system. In Kameshwar Singh v. State of Bihar, when the Bihar Zamindari Abolition Act was held unconstitutional, the Government intervened and inserted Articles 31-A and 31-B by the 1st Amendment thus restricting the scope of this right. Later cases have not challenged this right on merits but only the adequacy of compensation that can be provided under this right.
In Keshavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala, the opinion of Justice Khanna clearly held that the right to property is not a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution. Though he later clarified this position as regards the Basic Structure in Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain, he maintained the above as regards the right to property.
Coming to the present petition, Harish Salve appearing for the Centre for Good Governance director SK Agarwal argued that,
“The PIL seeking restoration of the right to property in the third chapter of the Constitution, which enumerates the fundamental rights enjoyed by every citizen, argued that it was made a statutory right in 1978 to abolish large land holdings with zamindars and rich and their distribution among landless peasants.
Having achieved the purpose behind the legislative action in the late 1970s, the government should now initiate fresh measures to put ‘right to property’ back in the fundamental right basket”
As stated earlier, because of the decision in IR Coelho’s case, all the Constitutional Amendments after 1st January 1974 can be challenged on the ground of violation of basic structure and Articles 14, 19 and 21. This petition seeks to do the same since the 44th Amendment was passed after this date.
“Explaining why the lawsuit was filed nearly three decades after the status of the right to property was diluted to that of an ordinary legal right, Salve told the court that there was a legal hitch in fling the lawsuit anytime before 2007.
For the first time in 2007, a nine-judge bench had clarified that any fundamental right of citizen is the basic structure of the constitution, which cannot be altered.”
I understand that the Court has now issued notices to the Centre to respond to this petition and it’d be interesting to see how this case goes ahead. Property has always been an issue in this Country, especially after the acquisition of land for the purposes of SEZs and the displacement of lakhs of people (generally poor). Perhaps, if the 44th Amendment is now declared unconstitutional we could now see a new trend in terms of recognizing the rights of slum dwellers and other persons.