The Bombay high court (HC) has termed the manner in which the collector of the Mumbai suburban district transferred 102 acres of saltpan land at Kanjurmarg to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) for the Metro car shed an act that “bordered on committing fraud on power”. The bench on Wednesday stayed the collector’s order and restrained the MMRDA from carrying out any further work at the site.
“The collector’s action of passing the October 1, 2020 order, in the manner he did, does border on committing a ‘fraud on power’,” the bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice Girish Kulkarni said in its reasoned order, which became available on Thursday.
In the order, the HC stated that the decision-making process leading to the October 1 order did not pass the test of judicial scrutiny. “We are conscious of the element of public interest involved in setting up of the Metro car shed on the subject land; at the same time, we cannot remain oblivious if a person is divested of its/his right in property without the authority of law,” said the bench.
The bench said the collector’s order had dispossessed parties interested in the saltpan land “not by procedure known to law, but by an executive fiat”. The judges noted that the collector had treated the land as state property and transferred its possession to the MMRDA by referring to certain notifications and resolutions, without giving any opportunity either to the Central government or to Maheshkumar Garodia, who claims to be the salt department’s licensee.
The HC found the action completely contrary to record, especially the communications and orders of various state officials clearly admitting the Central government’s ownership over the saltpan. In this regard, the bench has referred to an adjudicatory order passed by an officer on special duty of the state government on September 30, 1996, declaring the saltpan land belonged to the central salt department, and letters written by the metropolitan commissioner and additional chief secretary of the urban development department, as recently as on March 28, 2019 and December 4, 2019 respectively, to the ministry of commerce and industry requesting them to allot the saltpan land for the Metro car shed.
“In a society where ‘Rule of Law’ has primacy, the minimum that we expect of a responsible office as the collector is to adopt a fair, reasonable and impartial approach,” the bench said. “That is unfortunately lacking in the present case.”
The judges said the state could not have utilised the subject land for any public purpose conceived by it, especially when an application filed by the state government, seeking the court’s permission for utilising the saltpan land for Metro car shed was pending adjudication.
In the order, the bench also criticised the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. “It seems that there has been a change in policy with a change in the ruling dispensation in the state,” said the bench, without referring to the fact that the MVA government shifted the Metro car depot from Aarey Colony, a site selected by the earlier Devendra Fadnavis government, to Kanjurmarg. “While changes can be effected keeping in mind what the larger public interest warrants, extraneous considerations ought not to outweigh all other considerations of propriety, legality and fairness in administrative actions,” said HC.
“We are waiting for a written order of the high court. It will be improper to comment on oral observations. We will take a further decision, accordingly,” said chief secretary Sanjay Kumar.