Read Judgment: Esteem Properties Pvt. Ltd. & Ors. V. Chetan Kamble & Ors. 

Pankaj Bajpai

New Delhi, March 1, 2022: While finding that the present Title dispute was agitated for the past six decades and was concerning the subject land which had its genesis in the inquiry initiated by the Revenue & Forest Department, Government of Maharashtra u/s 20 of MLR Code which finally resulted in vesting of property in the Gonsalves family (predecessor-in-interest of Esteem Properties), the Supreme Court has opined that such order was passed without following the principles of natural justice and without providing adequate hearing to the Gonsalves family.  

A Larger Bench of Justice N.V Ramana, Justice A.S Bopanna and Justice Hima Kohli observed that the State has clearly indicated that they do not have any interest in pursuing the ownership of the land in question and have admitted to the title of Esteem Properties (Appellant), and therefore, the institution of the public interest litigation was nothing more than an abuse of the process which cannot be allowed. 

Going by the background of the case, from 1819 onwards, the land belonged to the Khot of Kurla, as per a grant made to them by the East India Company under a Deed. The appellants’ purported predecessor-in-interest became the absolute owners of the subject land by way of a Deed of Exchange, wherein the title of the land vested in the ancestors of the Gonsalves family. Later, in 1993, in an enquiry under the Salsette Estate (Land Revenue Exemption Abolition) Act, 1951 for all the land belonging to the Khot, the land in question was declared as Government land. Although the successors of the Khot preferred Civil Suit, it was subsequently settled by a Consent Decree, which affirmed the findings in favour of the State under the Salsette Estates Act. 

In 1962, another enquiry was conducted u/s 126 of the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code (MLR Code) for the entire Mumbai Suburban District, and the Enquiry Officer held that the land vests in the State Government. The Gonsalves family accordingly preferred Civil Suit stating that the orders passed in the City Survey enquiry were void and illegal, and that the Consent Decree was not binding on them. Subsequently, proceedings u/s 20(2) of the MLR Code were initiated and the Sub-Divisional Officer declared the subject land as State land. However, the Revenue Minister allowed the Gonsalves family’s revision application and held that they were the absolute owners of the subject land on the basis of the 1894 Deed of Exchange. The Revenue Minister concluded that occasion to hold the 1951 enquiry under the Salsette Estates Act did not arise as the land in question had become private land. 

Thereafter, Esteem Properties Pvt. Ltd. (Appellant), succeeded the Gonsalves family with respect to the land in question and an Agreement to Sell was executed between the two appellants, when Esteem Properties made an initial payment of Rs.1 crore. Subsequently, Esteem Properties filed a suit for specific performance in respect of the said Agreement, which was finally settled in accordance with the Consent Terms recorded by the Bombay High Court, whereby Esteem Properties become absolute owners of the land in question. Thereafter in 2007, on a Revision Application moved by Esteem Properties, the Revenue Minister observed that Section 258 of the MLR Code requires notice to be served upon the affected party, which was not so done. Later, in February 2008, Chetan Kamble & Others (first & second respondent) filed a PIL challenging the Revenue Minister’s order. Answering to the same, the Bombay High Court held that the land vests with the State Government, subject to the outcome of Civil Suit 698 of 1971 preferred by the Gonsalves family.

After considering the submissions, the Apex Court noted that one of the measures this Court can adopt to ensure that frivolous or private interests are not masqueraded as genuine claims, is to be cautious when examining locus standi. 

Generally, PIL, being a summary jurisdiction, has limited powers to examine the bonafides of parties, and it is usually on the pleadings that the Court should take a prima facie view on the bonafides of the party, added the Court. 

Speaking for the Bench, the Chief Justice opined that if the Court concludes that the litigation was initiated under the shadow of reasonable suspicion, then the Court may decline to entertain the claims on merits.  

The PIL petitioners had no reason to file a public interest litigation when the subject matter was evidently a title claim between a private party and that the State Government has accepted the title vesting in the Gonsalves family and subsequently in Esteem Properties, added the Larger Bench. 

Accordingly, the Larger Bench allowed the appeal observing that the Gonsalves family was not afforded an adequate hearing. 

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