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Introduction

  • The primary owner of land is the King or, in contemporary times, the elected Government in power. Consequently, the right of ownership always remains with the King or the Government, even when land is allocated to individual citizens for various purposes, such as agriculture. The doctrine of 'Eminent Domain' essentially refers to the sovereign authority of the King or the Government, under which the property of any individual can be taken for the benefit of the general public.
  • Eminent Domain can be defined as the authority vested in the King or the Government to acquire the private property of an individual whenever it is required for a public purpose.
    This doctrine is based on two guiding principles:
    • "Salus Populi Supreme Lex Esto" - The welfare of the people is the supreme law.
    • "Necessita Public Major Est Quan" - The necessity of the public always outweighs private necessity.
  • Eminent Domain grants the inherent power to the ruling authority to requisition an individual's property for public use without requiring their consent, with the important condition that just compensation must be provided in exchange for the property.

Constitutional reference of the Doctrine of ‘Eminent Domain’

  • The concept of 'Eminent Domain' finds its constitutional reference in India. Following Independence, the Supreme Court was entrusted with the responsibility of determining the constitutionality of certain laws designed to eliminate the outdated zamindari system. 'Eminent domain' in this context signifies the permanent authority of the state over property. It is enshrined in the Indian Constitution as the power of the state to acquire private property for the benefit of the public while also entitling the property owner to receive compensation.
  • According to the Indian Constitution, both the Union and State governments have the authority, under entry 42 of the List III in the Seventh Schedule, to enact laws related to property acquisition. The application of the power of eminent domain is justified when a public purpose necessitates the use of a specific piece of land that cannot be substituted. Article 31(2) of the Indian Constitution stipulates that the acquisition of private property must be for a public purpose. Furthermore, it mandates that no property can be taken unless the law authorizing the seizure includes a specific provision for compensation, as outlined in the clause.

Limits of the Doctrine of ‘Eminent Domain’

The doctrine of 'Eminent Domain' is encapsulated by the court in three fundamental conditions:

  • The authority to acquire any property,
  • Without the owner's consent,
  • Must be for a public purpose.

In the case of Sooraram Pratap Reddy v. Collector1, the court has outlined specific criteria for assessing the exercise of this power, including:

  • Avoidance of abuse or insincerity in exercising the power.
  • Scrutiny for any underlying private purpose concealed behind the facade of a public purpose.
  • Compliance with the acquisition procedure prescribed by the law.
  • Assessment of the acquisition's rationality and reasonableness.
  • Ensuring that possession serves a genuine public purpose and not merely a deceptive pretext.

While the government generally holds the authority to determine what constitutes a public purpose, the courts possess the ability to review such determinations. In practice, the courts have imposed certain limitations, including:

  • Ensuring that compensation is provided for the property being acquired.
  • Upholding the principle that the interest of the community outweighs that of an individual.

The Doctrine of ‘Eminent Domain’ has become Futile?

Upon reviewing three landmark cases concerning eminent domain in the United States, it becomes evident that all of them have resulted in the loss of private properties and an expansion of the abuse of power in the context of eminent domain.

  • In the first case, Berman v. Parker2, the property in question was situated in Washington DC, which operates under a different legal framework than the rest of the United States, with Congress holding special powers known as police powers. The District of Columbia Court ruled that the requirement of a 'public purpose' did not apply to the seizure of Berman's property and deemed it constitutional, primarily because the redevelopment plan had been approved by Congress. In this decision, it appears that the Court neglected its duty as the sovereign judicial branch to assess whether Congress was acting constitutionally. Merely passing the Redevelopment Act of 1945 did not automatically guarantee that the Act served a legitimate public purpose or was constitutional.
  • In the second case, Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff3, the Hawaii State Legislature enacted the Land Reform Act in 1967 to acquire property from 72 landowners who collectively owned approximately 51% of the land on the island. This acquisition was carried out under the doctrine of eminent domain, with the intention of subsequently selling the land to individuals who preferred to rent rather than purchase. The Supreme Court upheld this action, asserting that it would satisfy the 'public purpose' requirement. However, the provision specifically safeguards the use of the property for public purposes, with 'use' being the protected term. Nevertheless, the Court seemed to equate 'use' and 'purpose' as synonymous, although in reality, they are distinct. The Court's decision essentially allowed the State of Hawaii to take private property from one party and transfer it exclusively for the private use and benefit of others.
  • In the third case, Kelo v. City of New London4, the Supreme Court, in a majority ruling of 5:4, authorized economic development as a valid public use. This decision prompted dissenting judges to emphasize the distinction between the terms 'use' and 'purpose.'

In India, there is a clear trend in which the judiciary plays a role in bridging the gap between the legal requirements for development and private property rights. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 in India grants the government the power of eminent domain. However, it does not explicitly include the acquisition of land for a private company as a 'public purpose.' Nevertheless, in recent decades, the government has employed eminent domain powers to acquire land for private industry by interpreting 'public purpose' to encompass development and industrialization.
The Supreme Court of India, through its judgments, has often sought to safeguard the interests of local communities and has overturned certain land acquisition actions by the government. The Court has held that the government's exercise of its powers under Section 17 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, does not comply with the law. These judgments, coupled with widespread protests across India, have brought land acquisition to a halt.
In the State of West Bengal, the acquisition of land in 'Singur' from farmers sparked a debate about whether the doctrine of eminent domain should be employed to acquire land for private companies. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state's attempt to acquire land by invoking the notion of public purpose to benefit a specific group and serve a particular purpose at the expense of the broader public interest would undermine the concept of 'public purpose.'

Conclusion

The basis for the state's authority to acquire private land rests on the doctrine of eminent domain. Nevertheless, the Right to Property is not absolute, as it permits the state to intervene for legitimate reasons. To justify the state's interference with private property, it must be carried out in the public interest, as required by the constitution and human rights. While the term 'Public Purpose' defined in the Land Acquisition Act is relatively less ambiguous, it does not preclude the judiciary from examining instances of abuse in genuine land acquisitions or land usage. However, the likelihood of misuse of the eminent domain doctrine appears to be relatively low.

The document Doctrine of Eminent domain | Law Optional Notes for UPSC is a part of the UPSC Course Law Optional Notes for UPSC.
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