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Whether court is under obligation to take action within reasonable time if no limitation is prescribed?


C.A. No. 1250 of 2008

Decided On: 19.04.2017

Chhedi Lal Yadav and Ors.
Hari Kishore Yadav (D) thr. L.Rs. and Ors.

Hon’ble Judges/Coram:
S.A. Bobde and L. Nageswara Rao, JJ.

Citation: (2018) 12 SCC 527

1. This appeal is preferred against the judgment of the Division Bench of the High Court of Judicature at Patna whereby the High Court had reversed the order passed by the Additional Collector, Supaul directing restoration of possession of the disputed land admeasuring about 10.47 acres to the Appellants under the provisions of the Bihar Kosi Area (Restoration of Lands to Raiyats), Act, 1951 (for short, “the Act”). We have heard learned Counsel for the parties at length. Having done so, we are inclined to dispose of the appeal on the ground of unreasonable delay in applying for restoration of the land. The few dates necessary for deciding this issue are as follows:

2. On 13.08.1942, the suit land was sold in auction in execution of the Rent Decree. The suit land was then put in possession of the Appellant(s)’ predecessor. In execution, the land was purchased by one Babu Md. Abdus Samad. Thereafter, the land appeared to have changed hands four times.

3. In 1951, the State of Bihar enacted the Act. The Act provided for restoration of certain lands to farmers, i.e., raiyats, which were sold for arrears of rent or from which they were ejected for arrears of rent between 1st day of January 1939, and 31st day of December, 1950. This was operational due to floods in the Kosi River which made agricultural operations impossible.

4. The Appellants did not take any steps for restoration of the land till 04.05.1975. On that date one Gonar Yadav, son of recorded tenant Chanchal Yadav filed a petition for restoration of the disputed land Under Section 3 of the Act. Eventually, after an earlier remand, when the matter was pending in appeal, being Appeal No. 540 of 1978-79, it was dismissed in default on 07.09.1980. It was again restored on 23.12.1980; but again dismissed for default on 23.03.1983.

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5. An application for restoration was moved after 16 years on 09.08.1999 and was allowed without notice to the Respondents. Eventually, the Additional Collector on 27.12.2000, allowed the restoration of the disputed land in favour of the Appellants.

6. A Writ Petition filed by the Respondents was dismissed by the learned, Single Judge on 25.03.2004. A Letters Patent Appeal preferred by the Respondents was, however, allowed. That judgment is in appeal before us at the instance of the Appellants who had been denied the restoration of land. It is obvious from the periods of time mentioned above that even after the Act was passed in 1951, the Appellants filed a petition for restoration of the disputed land on 04.05.1975, i.e., after a period of about 24 years. Thereafter, when the appeal filed by them was dismissed on 23.08.1983, the Appellants applied for restoration on 09.08.1999 after a period of 16 years of such dismissal.

7. We find that there is inordinate, unexplained and unjustified delay on the part of the Appellants in firstly, making an application for restoration of land after a period of 24 years after such a right is said to have accrued to them and, then in making an application for restoration after a period of 16 years when the matter was dismissed in default.

8. Learned Counsel appearing for the Appellants vehemently submitted that the delay must be overlooked because the Act is a beneficial piece of legislation intended to bring relief to farmers who had been dispossessed during the proscribed period. The reliance was placed on a judgment of this Court in the case of New India Assurance Co. Ltd. v. C. Padma and Anr. reported in MANU/SC/0704/2003 : (2003) 7 SCC 713 where this Court held that in a motor accident which took place on 18.12.1989, a Claim Petition barred by time but filed on 02.11.1995, after limitation itself was removed from the Statute was maintainable. This Court held that there could be no resort to Article 137 of the Limitation Act, 1963 even though no period of limitation was prescribed. Accordingly, the Court held that the Claim Petition could not be rejected at the threshold on the ground of limitation, after the deletion of Sub-section (3), of Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 which had provided a period of six months. This view was taken having regard to the purpose of the Statute. We, however, find that the judgment relied on has no application to the present case. It is a settled law where the Statute does not provide for a period of limitation, the provisions of the Statute must be invoked within a reasonable time. In Advanced Law Lexicon by P. Ramanatha Aiyar, 3rd Edn. ‘reasonable time’ is explained as follows:

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That is a reasonable time that preserves to each party the rights and advantages he possesses and protects each party from losses that he ought not to suffer.
Thus time must be reckoned reasonably, not only in order to preserve rights and advantages a party possesses, but equally to protect each party from the losses he ought not to suffer. Thus whether an action has been taken within a reasonable time must also be viewed from the point of view of the party who might suffer losses.

9. In the instant case, we find that the High Court had observed as follows:

The auction sale took place in 1942, the application for restoration of the lands was first made in 1975 and the appeal from it was dismissed for default in 1983. In the meanwhile the disputed lands changed hands twice and were in the possession of the Appellants-writ Petitioners from 1962 and 1986. Such a long settled position could only be up-set for some very compelling reasons and on making out an extremely strong case for restoration of the appeal. There is nothing on record to suggest anything remotely like that. Secondly, the action of the Addl. Collector in restoring the appeal even without any notice to the Appellants-writ Petitioners was clearly illegal and in contravention of Sections 4 & 5 of the Act.

The High Court was clearly right in the view it had taken. It is argued on behalf of the Appellants that power of the Additional Collector for restoration of lands could have been exercised suo motu and since no limitation was prescribed for exercise of such power, the delay in this case may be overlooked. This submission presupposes that where the power can be exercised suo motu, such exercise may be undertaken at any time. The submission is directly contrary to a decision of this Court in the case of Joint Collector Ranga Reddy District and Anr. v. D. Narsing Rao and Ors. (Civil Appeal Nos. 325-326 of 2015) and connected matter reported in MANU/SC/0024/2015 : (2015) 3 SCC 695 where this Court affirmed the view of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Paragraph ’17’ of the judgment reads as follows:

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…that the suo motu revision undertaken after a long lapse of time, even in the absence of any period of limitation was arbitrary and opposed to the concept of rule of law.
Thus we have no hesitation in rejecting this contention.

10. In our view, where no period of limitation is prescribed, the action must be taken, whether suo motu or on the application of the parties, within a reasonable time. Undoubtedly, what is reasonable time would depend on the circumstances of each case and the purpose of the Statute. In the case before us, we are clear that the action is grossly delayed and taken beyond reasonable time, particularly, in view of the fact that the land was transferred several times during this period, obviously, in the faith that it is not encumbered by any rights.

11. We are of the view that merely because the legislation is beneficial and no limitation is prescribed, the rights acquired by persons cannot be ignored lightly and proceedings cannot be initiated after unreasonable delay as observed by this Court in the case of Situ Sahu and Ors. v. State of Jharkhand reported in MANU/SC/0744/2004 : (2004) 8 SCC 340.

12. The appeal is, accordingly, dismissed. However, the Appellants may apply for return of the compensation and damages deposited by them.

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