Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardichan and Ors

1980 AIR 1622; 1981 SCR (1) 97; 1980 SCC (4) 162
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Both the prosperous and poor people of New Road, Ratlam were victims of extremely inadequate basic public sanitation facilities, fluid discharge of a local alcohol plant and overflow of storm water to the street. This resulted in various types of septic fluids flowing openly and constantly in the street, and consequently the street’s sanitation was extremely poor to the point where the conditions were unlivable.

Under § 123 of the Madhya Pradesh Municipalities Act 1961 (M.P.M.A.), the Municipal Council was required to “undertake and make reasonable and adequate provision” for services, including keeping public places clean, removing rubbish and abating nuisances.

Furthermore, the Magistrate’s Court, under § 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.) had the authority to direct the removal of public nuisances. Additionally, under § 188 of the Indian Penal Code (I.P.C.) the Magistrate’s Court may order imprisonment for any breach of a court order which causes danger to human life health or safety.
After the people of Ratlam’s complaints to the Municipal Council went unheeded, the Respondents sought, and were awarded, an order from the Sub Divisional Magistrate. The order compelled the Municipal Council to construct an adequate drainage system to reduce and manage septic and other liquid waste whilst also ordering DDT spraying to control the threat of Malaria, all to be completed within specified time limits.

In the Sessions Court, the Municipal Council claimed its financial resources were inadequate to comply with the order; on this basis the Magistrate’s order was set aside.

The High Court upheld the Magistrates Order. On appeal, the Court upheld the High Court’s decision and further ordered the alcohol plant outflows stop, and that public latrines be installed with adequate ongoing maintenance.

The Court held that the Respondents had standing in the matter. At the heart of the matter was a public health issue and the legal responsibility for it. Standing was thus based on the interests of social justice in Indian society referenced from the Constitution, particularly the Preamble and Article 38.

The Court held that the Municipal Council was obliged to take responsibility for the conditions of New Road, which were found to be a public nuisance. This was the result of a combination of two laws:

  • The Municipal Council’s duty as stipulated in § 123 M.P.M.A.
  • The authority of the Magistrate’s court to make orders concerning public nuisances as detailed in § 133 Cr.P.C. (with the threat of punitive enforcement in § 188 I.P.C.).

The Municipal Council’s legal obligations included providing adequate public latrines, filling in the cesspools, stopping the flow of effluent, and spraying potential malaria infestation.

The Court rejected the Municipal Council’s argument that financial constraints prohibited it from obeying the Magistrate’s order. The Court held that the Municipal Council could not “run away from its principal duty by pleading financial inability” and that “decency and dignity” were “non-negotiable facets of human rights” which constituted a “first charge on local self-governing bodies.” The Court held that sanitised public places should not be at the risk of a “self created bankruptcy” or a “perverted expenditure budget.”

The Court held that it had the authority to require the Municipal Council to adopt a specific scheme toward meeting its obligations under the order. Justification for “affirmative action on a time-bound basis” was on the basis of the severe circumstances, such as the significant lack of managing malaria concerns. Therefore the Court was obliged to behave as more than a mere “umpire” or ‘“adjudicator.”

The Court selected one of the three schemes presented by expert engineers from both the Applicants and Respondents, which presented a balance between realizing the Municipal Council’s statutory duties, and acknowledging it’s financial and time constraints.

To further manage the financial demands of the orders, and in accordance with the directive principal of improving public health enshrined in Article 47 of the Constitution, the Court directed the State Government of Madhya Pradesh to lend the necessary funds to the Municipal Council.

“The truth is that a few profound issues of processual jurisprudence of great strategic significance to our legal system face us and we must zero-in on them as they involve problems of access to justice for the people beyond the blinkered rules of `standing' of British Indian vintage. If the centre of gravity of justice is to shift, as the Preamble to the Constitution mandates, from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of public interest litigation, these issues must be considered.” [1981] 1 SCR 97, pg. 99.

“Public nuisance, because of pollutants being discharged by big factories to the detriment of the poorer sections, is a challenge to the social justice component of the rule of law.” [1981] 1 SCR 97, pg. 110.

“A responsible municipal council constituted for the precise purpose of preserving public health and providing better finances cannot run away from its principal duty by pleading financial inability. Decency and dignity are nonnegotiable facets of human rights and are a first charge on local self-governing bodies. Similarly, providing drainage systems- not pompous and attractive, but in working condition and sufficient to meet the needs of the people- cannot be evaded if the municipality is to justify its existence.” [1981] 1 SCR 97, pg. 110.

“An order to abate the nuisance by taking affirmative action on a time- bound basis is justified in the circumstances. The nature of the judicial process is not purely adjudicatory nor is it functionally that of an umpire only. Affirmative action to make the remedy effective is of the essence of the right which otherwise becomes sterile.” [1981] 1 SCR 97, pg. 110-11.

“The law will relentlessly be enforced and the plea of poor finance will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice. The dynamics of the judicial process has a new 'enforcement' dimension not merely through some of the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (as here), but also through activated tort consciousness. The officers in charge and even the elected representatives will have to face the penalty of the law if what the Constitution and follow-up legislation direct them to do are defied or denied wrongfully. The wages of violation is punishment, corporate and personal.” [1981] 1 SCR 97, pg. 114-15.