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Olga Tellis Case 1985

  • 26 Apr 2022
  • 7 min read

For Prelims: Supreme Court, Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation, in 1985 case, Right to Life of Pavement Dwellers, Prior Approval for Anti-Encroachment

For Mains: Right to Life, Judgments & Cases, Judiciary

Why in News?

Recently, the Constitution Bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation, in 1985 case, held that pavement dwellers are different from trespassers may become a game-changer in the Jahangirpuri (Delhi) case.

What were the Questions Discussed before the Supreme Court?

  • About the Issue: The case started in 1981 when the State of Maharashtra and the Bombay Municipal Corporation decided that pavement and slum dwellers in Bombay city should be evicted and “deported to their respective places of origin or places outside the city of Bombay.”
  • Question on Right to Life of Pavement Dwellers: One of the main questions was whether eviction of a pavement dweller would amount to depriving him/her of their livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
    • Article 21 mandates that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.
    • Approximately, there are 20 million pavement dwellers in India.
  • Question of Prior Approval for Anti-Encroachment: The Constitution Bench was also asked to determine if provisions in the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, allowing the removal of encroachments without prior notice, were arbitrary and unreasonable.
  • Question on Trespassing: The Supreme Court also decided to examine the question of whether it was constitutionally impermissible to characterize pavement dwellers as trespassers.

What was the Supreme Court's Judgement in Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation,1985 Case?

  • The Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation judgment in 1985 ruled that eviction of pavement dwellers using unreasonable force, without giving them a chance to explain is unconstitutional.
  • The court had emphatically objected to authorities treating pavement dwellers as mere trespassers.
    • “They (pavement dwellers) manage to find a habitat in places which are mostly filthy or marshy, out of sheer helplessness.

What was the State Government’s Defense?

  • Question of Estoppel: The State government and the corporation countered that pavement dwellers should be estopped.
    • Estoppel is a judicial device whereby a court may prevent or “estop” a person from making assertions.
    • Estoppel may prevent someone from bringing a particular claim contending that the shacks constructed by them on the pavements cannot be demolished because of their right to livelihood.
  • Public’s Right of Way: They cannot claim any fundamental right to encroach and put-up huts on pavements or public roads over which the public has a ‘right of way.’

What did the Supreme Court rule Presently?

  • On Estoppel: The court rejected the government’s argument of Estoppel, saying “there can be no Estoppel against the Constitution.”
    • The court held that the right to life of pavement dwellers was at stake here.
  • On Right to Livelihood: The right to livelihood was an “integral component” of the right to life.
    • If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to live, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.
  • On Prior Notice: On the second question whether provisions in law allowing statutory authorities to remove encroachments without prior notice was arbitrary.
    • Such powers are designed to operate as an “exception” and not the “general rule.”
    • The procedure of eviction should lean in Favour of procedural safeguards which follow the natural principles of justice like giving the other side an opportunity to be heard.
    • The right to be heard gives affected persons an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and also provides them with a chance to express themselves with dignity.
  • On Trespassing: Finally, the court emphatically objected to authorities treating pavement dwellers as mere trespassers.
    • The apex court ruled that pavement dwellers live on “filthy footpaths out of sheer helplessness” and not with the object of offending, insulting, intimidating or annoying anyone.
    • They live and earn on footpaths because they have “small jobs to nurse in the city and there is nowhere else to live.”

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Questions (PYQs)

Q. Which Article of the Constitution of India safeguards one’s right to marry the person of one’s choice? (2019)

(a) Article 19
(b) Article 21
(c) Article 25
(d) Article 29

Ans: (b)


  • The right to marry is a component of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India which states that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

Source: TH

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