Updated: July 23, 2021 10:53:09 am
The Delhi High Court on Thursday ruled that a promise or assurance given by a Chief Minister “clearly amounts to an enforceable promise”, the implementation of which ought to be considered by the State, while directing the Delhi government to take a decision on a statement made by CM Arvind Kejriwal during the lockdown last year that the state would be paying the rent if any tenant is unable to pay the same.
According to a petition filed by five daily-wage workers and a landlord in November 2020, Kejriwal on March 29 last year in a press conference requested all landlords to postpone the demand or collection of rent from those tenants “who are poor and poverty stricken” and also promised that if any tenant is unable to pay the rent due to poverty, the government would pay on their behalf.
Justice Prathiba M Singh in the verdict said that good governance requires that promises made to citizens by those who govern are not broken without valid and justifiable reasons. The court said “puffing” in commercial advertising may be permissible but ought not be recognisable and permissible in governance.
“The saying `promises are meant to be broken’ is well known in the social context. However, law has evolved the doctrines of legitimate expectation and promissory estoppel to ensure that promises made by the Government, its officials, and other authorities are not broken and are, in fact, judicially enforceable, subject to certain conditions,” said the court.
It said that in a democratic setup, persons who hold an elected office, especially holding responsible positions and heads of State, are expected to make responsible assurances to their citizens more so in times of crisis and distress. The lack of decision making or indecision in the backdrop of the commitment made is contrary to law, it held.
“The Supreme Court has recognised and granted relief in the context of commercial matters such as tax exemptions, grant of incentives etc,. In the present case, the nature of rights is of even greater importance as they relate to the Right to Shelter during a pandemic. In the context of upholding Fundamental Rights, the principles of legitimate expectation have to be accorded a higher pedestal and the burden on the authority concerned not to honour the same, is even higher,” Justice Singh said.
Observing that a statement given in a consciously held press conference in the background of the lockdown and “mass exodus” of migrant labourers cannot be simply overlooked, the court said the assurance was not a political promise and not made as a part of any election rally.
“There is a reasonable expectation on behalf of citizens that the CM knows the background in which such a promise is being made, the number of people who would be affected by the same as also the financial implications of such a promise/assurance… The statement was not made by a Government functionary at a lower level in the hierarchy, who could be devoid of such knowledge,” it said.
Directing the Delhi government to take a decision in six weeks, the court further asked the state to bear in mind the larger interest of the persons to whom the benefits were intended to be extended in the statement given by the CM. “Upon the said decision being taken, the GNCTD would frame a clear policy in this regard,” it said.
The Delhi government during the hearing of the case had argued that the doctrine of legitimate expectation can only be based on actual governmental policy, a governmental notification or an executive decision, and not on a mere political statement. It had also argued that all governmental policy is executed in the name of the Governor and any statement made by the CM would not be enforceable.
The court said that once the CM had made a solemn assurance, there was a duty cast on the Delhi government to take a stand as to whether to enforce the said promise or not, and if so on what grounds or reasons.
“It cannot be held that there was no expectation or anticipation by the citizens that the CM’s promise would be given effect to. The doctrine of promissory estoppel also being an equitable doctrine, equity requires this Court to hold the GNCTD responsible for the said indecision or lack of action, on the promise/assurance given by the CM,” reads the judgment.
It also noted in the judgment that a large number of people, including labourers and construction workers, left the national capital and lost their employment during the lockdown.
“It is in this context that the promise was made by the CM that there would be reimbursement to the landlords, if tenants do not pay the rent. The speech, which was under the premise that Covid-19 may be over within two-three months, shows that the words used were आश्वासन (assurance or promise) and भुगतान (reimbursement) for the landlords, on behalf of the tenants,” the bench said.
Observing that the effect of the assurance made by the CM in curbing the movement of migrants cannot be estimated, the court said the promise made was obviously with a view to stop or curb migration of people from Delhi. Proper governance requires the government to take a decision on the assurance made by the CM and inaction on the same cannot be the answer, it said.
“This court cannot be dismissive of the fact that the petitioners, who are before the court, claim to have acted on the promise or the assurance made by the CM. It would not be unreasonable to presume that some tenants and landlords may have altered their positions based upon the assurance given by the CM,” it said.
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