The ongoing controversy in the Supreme Court involving judicial discipline after a three-judge bench overruled the decision of another three-judge bench centres around the interpretation of Section 24 of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (RFCTLARR Act).   This provision deals with the question when the land acquisition process under the previous Land Acquisition Act of 1894 shall be deemed to have lapsed.
The bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Adarsh Kumar Goel and Mohan M Shantanagoudar, with the last judge dissenting, held on February 8 in Indore Development Authority that the 2014 judgment in Pune Municipal Corporation – also delivered by a three-Judge bench on the subject – is per incuriam.
With the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, assigning this case for resolution by a five-Judge Constitution bench, from March 6, the issue is likely to be debated at length in the coming days.
Dr. Namita Wahi, who leads the Land Rights Initiative at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and has done pioneering research on the subject, answers the questions posed by LiveLaw, considering the recent events in the Supreme Court.
LIVELAW:  On the face of it, it appears as though the 2014 judgment wanted to extend the benefit of higher compensation under the 2013 Act to all those who did not get compensation under the 1894 Act, whereas the Arun Mishra bench is in favour of treating the proviso to Section 24 of the  Act, as a restriction on such wholesale extension of benefit.  In other words, is the nuanced distinction which Arun Mishra bench makes between payment of compensation, and the deposit of the compensation amount in the account of beneficiaries, in the February 8 judgment, valid?
NAMITA WAHI: Section 24 of the “RFCTLARR Act” provides for retrospective operation of that Act to pending acquisitions under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.
Section 24, clause (1) of the Act provides, that in case of a pending land acquisition proceeding, where a compensation award has not been passed under the 1894 Act, then the land losers would be entitled to compensation under the RFCTLARR Act.
Section 24, clause (2) of the Act provides that in case a compensation award has been made under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, but one of two conditions is satisfied, then the land acquisition proceedings under the 1894 Act would be deemed to have lapsed, with the consequence that the government would have to initiate fresh acquisition proceedings under the RFCTLARR Act to proceed with the acquisition.
The first condition is where an award of compensation was made five years before the commencement of the RFCTLARR Act, but either physical possession of land was not taken or compensation not paid. The proviso to section 24 outlines the second condition. It states that where an award of compensation was made under the old Act but the compensation amount has not been deposited in the accounts of the majority of the beneficiaries, then all beneficiaries listed in the original notification for acquisition under the 1894 Act, shall be entitled to compensation in accordance with the provisions of the RFCTLARR Act.
At issue in both the 2014 decision of the Supreme Court in Pune Municipal Corporation and the 2018 decision in Indore Development Authority is the meaning of the word “paid” in section 24(2) of the RFCTLARR Act and the word “deposit” in the accounts of beneficiaries in the proviso to section 24(2).  Justice Lodha writing for a unanimous three judge bench of the court in the Pune Municipal Corporation case, held that the word “paid” in section 24(2) has to be read in light of section 31(2) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.
Section 31 of the 1894 Act, makes provision for payment of compensation or deposit of the same in the court. Section 31(1) of the 1894 Act mandates the Collector to “tender payment” of compensation as awarded by him to the persons interested who are entitled to compensation. But if the compensation is not actually paid to the land losers either because they refuse to accept the compensation, or because of other contingencies listed in that section, then the Collector can discharge his obligation to pay the compensation by depositing it in the court where the land losers have sought a reference under the 1894 Act. Applying this interpretation to the case before him, Justice Lodha concluded that because the Pune Municipal Corporation had deposited the compensation in the treasury and not in court, therefore, the acquisition proceedings would be deemed to have lapsed under section 24(2) of the Act.
Over the last four years, both published and unpublished CPR Land Rights Initiative data shows that 245 Supreme Court decisions and about a thousand High Court decisions have followed the Pune Municipal Corporation case in their interpretation of section 24(2) and quashed acquisitions when compensation intended for beneficiaries was not deposited in Court.
Last month, in another three judge bench decision of the Supreme Court in the Indore Development Authority case, Justice Arun Mishra writing for the Court has held that the Supreme Court in the Pune Municipal Corporation case, ignored rules made by various state governments under section 55 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, in arriving at its decision. These rules including those made by the states of Bihar, Orissa, Karnataka, Assam, and Punjab, provide that where a beneficiary seeks no reference to court contesting the compensation award but nevertheless refuses to accept the compensation from the Collector, then the Collector must deposit compensation in the government treasury.
From this review, Justice Mishra concludes that where the land losers make reference to the Court, then the compensation amount must be deposited in court in accordance with section 31(2) of the 1894 Act, but where they don’t make a reference to court and don’t accept the compensation, then the Collector discharges his responsibility by depositing the compensation in the government treasury.