Olga Tellis & Ors v Bombay Municipal Council [1985] 2 Supp SCR 51.

Pavement dwellers and public interest organizations claim eviction of pavement dwellers would violate right to life under the Constitution by depriving them of their livelihood; right to life includes protection of means of livelihood; obligations to provide natural justice before eviction but no automatic right to resettlement under Indian constitutional law.

Date of the Ruling: 
Jul 10 1985
Supreme Court of India
Type of Forum: 

In 1981, the State of Maharashta and the Bombay Municipal Council decided to evict all pavement and slum dwellers from the city of Bombay. The residents claimed such action would violate the right to life, since a home in the city allowed them to attain a livelihood and demanded that adequate resettlement be provided if the evictions proceeded. The Court declined to provide the remedies requested by the applicants but found that the right to a hearing had been violated at the time of the planned eviction. The Court held that the right to life, in Article 21 of the Constitution, encompassed means of livelihood since, “if there is an obligation upon the State to secure to citizens an adequate means of livelihood and the right to work, it would be sheer pedantry to exclude the right to livelihood from the content of the right to life.” However, the right to a livelihood was not absolute and deprivation of the right to livelihood could occur if there was a just and fair procedure undertaken according to law. The government's action must be reasonable and any person affected must be afforded an opportunity of being heard as to why that action should not be taken. In the present case, the Court found that the residents had been rendered the opportunity of being heard by virtue of the Supreme Court proceedings. While the residents were clearly not intending to trespass, they found it was reasonable for the government to evict those living on public pavements, footpaths and public roads. The evictions were to be delayed until one month after the monsoon season (31 October 1985).  The Court declined to hold that evicted dwellers had a right to an alternative site but instead made orders that: (i) sites should be provided to residents presented with census cards in 1976; (ii) slums in existence for 20 years or more were not to be removed unless land was required for public purposes and, in that case, alternative sites must be provided; (iii) high priority should be given to resettlement.

Keywords: Olga Tellis & Ors v Bombay Municipal Council [1985] 2 Supp SCR 51, Housing, Rights

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

The pavement dwellers were evicted without resettlement. Since 1985, the principles in this case have been affirmed in many subsequent decisions, frequently leading to large-scale evictions without resettlement. For example, in the Narmada dam cases, adequate resettlement was ordered but most affected evictees have not been properly resettled and the majority of the Court declined to examine the extent to which their judgment was enforced: see Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India (2000) 10 SCC 664.

Groups involved in the case: 

The case was brought by 11 residents, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, and two journalists, one of whom was Olga Tellis. People’s Union for Civil Liberties 81 Sahayoga apartments Mayur Vihar - I Delhi 110091, India 91-11-2250014 (telefax); 91-11-2256931 (fax) 91-11-2492342 Email: national@pucl.org Web: www.pucl.org Lawyers for the petitioners included: Miss Indira Jaisingh, Miss Rani Jethmalani, Anand Grover, Sumeet Kachhwaha, Ram Jethmalani, V.M. Tarkunde, Miss Darshna Bhogilal, Mrs. Indu Sharma and P.H. Parekh.

Significance of the Case: 

Olga Tellis has stated: “Ironically,[the case] helped the propertied classes; lawyers often cite the case to justify eviction of tenants and slum dwellers. But it also helps the slum dwellers; the Government can't evict them summarily. The case also spawned a lot of interest in fighting for housing as a fundamental right … but if you were a pavement dweller, it is just not enough.” This case is widely quoted as exemplifying the use of civil and political rights to advance social rights but it is also viewed as problematic due to its failure to provide for the right to resettlement. It is also inconsistent with developments in other jurisdictions, where courts have found stronger rights to resettlement.