October 2, 2022

Does Doctrine of estoppel apply against fundamental rights?

This question was considered by Supreme court in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal corporation[1].

The Olga Tellis case considered as one of the important case in judicial history. In the case, the court gave the fundamental right on ‘Right to livelihood”. If we say in two lines, this case emerged when Bombay municipality went to slum and pavement dwellings to remove slums, the dwellers approached the Bombay high court and high court gave interim relief, despite the interim relief, the dwellings were removed and dwellers forcibly deported to their home towns.

Against this the dwellers approached Supreme court with the help of journalist and social activists and one of the journalist was Olga tellis.

Read the entire backstory of this case, here

The relief of high court and the question of estoppel against fundamental rights

When the pavement and slum dwellers approached the Bombay high court, a learned Single Judge granted an ad-interim injunction restraining the respondents from demolishing the huts and from evicting the pavement dwellers.

When the petition came up for hearing on July 27, 1981, counsel for the petitioners made a statement in answer to a query from the court, that no fundamental right could be claimed to put up dwellings on foot-paths or public roads. Upon this statement, respondents agreed not to demolish until October 15, 1981, huts which were constructed on the pavements or public roads prior to July 23,1981.

On August 4, 1981, a written undertaking was given by the petitioners agreeing, inter alia, to vacate the huts on or before October 15, 1981 and not to obstruct the public authorities from demolishing them.

Counsel appearing for the State of Maharashtra responded to the petitioners’ undertaking by giving an undertaking on behalf of the State Government that, until October 15, 1981, no pavement dweller will be removed out of the city against his wish. On the basis of these undertakings, the learned Judge disposed of the writ petition without passing any further orders.

The contention of the Bombay Municipal Corporation was that since the pavement dwellers had conceded in the High Court that they did not claim any fundamental right to put up huts on pavements or public roads and since they had given an undertaking to the High Court that they will not obstruct the demolition of the huts after October 15, 1981,

they are estopped from contending in this Court that the huts constructed by them on the pavements cannot be demolished because of their right to livelihood, which is comprehended within the fundamental right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.

Doctrine of estoppel does not apply against constitution

But the court denied to accept the contention that the petitioners are estopped from setting up their fundamental rights as a defence to the demolition of the huts put up by them on pavements or parts of public roads.

The court said that there can be no estoppel against the Constitution.

Why doctrine of estoppel does not apply against constitution

The Constitution is not only the paramount law of the land but, it is the source and substance of all laws. Its provisions are conceived in public interest and are intended to serve a public purpose.

The basis of doctrine of estoppel

The doctrine of estoppel is based on the principle that consistency in word and action imparts certainty and honesty to human affairs. If a person makes a representation to another, on the faith of which the latter acts to his prejudice, the former cannot resile from the representation made by him. He must make it good.

No estoppel against fundamental rights

This principle can have no application to representations made regarding the assertion or enforcement of fundamental rights. For example, the concession made by a person that he does not possess and would not exercise his right to free speech and expression or the right to move freely throughout the territory of India cannot deprive him of those constitutional rights, any more than a concession that a person has no right of personal liberty can justify his detention contrary to the terms of Article 22 of the Constitution.

Fundamental rights are undoubtedly conferred by the Constitution upon individuals which have to be asserted and enforced by them, if those rights are violated. But, the high purpose which the Constitution seeks to achieve by conferment of fundamental rights is not only to benefit individuals but to secure the larger interests of the community.

The Preamble of the Constitution says that India is a democratic Republic. It is in order to fulfil the promise of the Preamble that fundamental rights are conferred by the Constitution, some on citizens like those guaranteed by Articles 15,16,19,21 and 29, and some on citizens and non- citizens alike, like those guaranteed by Articles 14,21,22 and 25 of the Constitution.

No individual can barter away the freedoms conferred upon him by the Constitution. A concession made by him in a proceeding, whether under a mistake of law or otherwise, that he does not possess or will not enforce any particular fundamental right, cannot create an estoppel against him in that or any subsequent proceeding. Such a concession, if enforced, would defeat the purpose of the Constitution.

Were the argument of estoppel valid, an all-powerful state could easily tempt an individual to forego his precious personal freedoms on promise of transitory, immediate benefits.

Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that the petitioners had conceded in the Bombay High Court that they have no fundamental right to construct hutments on pavements and that they will not object to their demolition after October 15, 1981, they are entitled to assert that any such action on the part of public authorities will be in violation of their fundamental rights. How far the argument regarding the existence and scope of the right claimed by the petitioners is well- founded is another matter. But, the argument has to be examined despite the concession.

Does a person have a right to waive fundamental rights?

The plea of estoppel is closely connected with the plea of waiver, the object of both being to ensure bona fides in day-today transactions.

In Basheshar Nath v. The Commissioner of Income Tax Delhi,[2] a Constitution Bench of this Court considered the question whether the fundamental rights conferred by the Constitution can be waived. Two members of the Bench (Das C.J. and Kapoor J.) held that there can be no waiver of the fundamental right founded on Article 14 of the Constitution.

Two others (N.H. Bhagwati and Subba Rao, JJ.) held that not only could there be no waiver of the right conferred by Article 14, but there could be no waiver of any other fundamental right guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. The Constitution makes no distinction, according to the learned Judges, between fundamental rights enacted for the benefit of an individual and those enacted in public interest or on grounds of public policy.

Reference

Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation; 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51


[1] 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51

[2] [1959] Supp. 1 S.C.R. 528