In a judgment of significant implications, the Delhi High Court on Thursday ruled that a promise, assurance or representation given by Chief Minister (CM) of a State amounts to an enforceable promise and the same has to be implemented by the government (Najma v. Govt of NCT of Delhi).
Single-judge Justice Prathiba M Singh, therefore, ordered that Delhi government is bound by the assurance given by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in his press conference of March 29, 2020 in which he said that Delhi government would to pay rents on behalf of poor tenants if any tenant is unable to pay rent.
The Court ruled that the assurance/promise given by the Chief Minister is enforceable, both on the basis of the doctrines of promissory estoppel and legitimate expectations.
"This court is of the opinion that the promise/assurance/representation given by the CM clearly amounts to an enforceable promise, the implementation of which ought to be considered by the Government. Good governance requires that promises made to citizens, by those who govern, are not broken, without valid and justifiable reasons," the Court held.
The Court, therefore, ordered the Delhi government to take steps to frame a policy to carry out the assurance given by the CM and to give reasons if they decide not to implement the CM's proposal.
"The assurance given by the CM has to be considered by the Government and a decision has to be taken whether to implement or not implement the same," the Court said.
The GNCTD would, having regard to the statement made by the CM on 29th March, 2020, to landlords and tenants, take a decision as to the implementation of the same within a period of 6 week, the judgment added.
The said decision would be taken, bearing in mind the larger interest of the persons to whom the benefits were intended to be extended in the said statement, as well as other overriding public interest concerns.
The judgment was passed on a plea by petitioners which included daily wage labourers who claimed to be tenants unable to pay their rents after COVID-19 economic slowdown.
One of the petitioners was a landlord who claimed that he was not getting his monthly rent.
The petitioners placed reliance on the press conference held by Kejriwal on March 29, 2020.
In the press conference, he requested all landlords to postpone the demand/collection of rent from those tenants who are poor and poverty stricken.
While requesting landlords to talk to their tenants and postpone the collection of rents, it is alleged that the CM, in the press conference, made a clear promise that if any tenant is unable to pay the rent due to poverty, the Government would pay his/her rent on their behalf.
In this regard, the transcript of the press conference was annexed to the petition.
Advocate Gaurav Jain appearing for the petitioners contended that when such a promise/assurance is given by the Chief Minister who is the government's highest functionary, citizens are entitled to seek enforcement of such promises on the basis of the doctrine of legitimate expectation.
He submitted that Right to Shelter is a fundamental right and the government, having made a clear representation to the citizens, would be bound by the said representation.
The trust which was reposed on the constitutional functionary i.e., the CM, by the citizens is completely breached if the Government is not held to the promise made on its behalf by its highest functionary, he argued.
Senior counsel Rahul Mehra, representing the Delhi government, submitted that the doctrine of legitimate expectation can only be based on actual governmental policy or a governmental notification or an executive decision, and not on a mere political statement.
He contended that unless and until there is an actual governmental policy which has been formally issued, a promise cannot be the mere basis of a claim based on the doctrine of legitimate expectation.
He placed reliance on the judgments of the Supreme Court in State of Bihar v. Kalyanpur Cement and Manuelsons Hotels Private Limited v. State of Kerala to buttress his claims.
The Court after hearing the rival arguments, ruled that in a democratic setup, persons who hold an elected office, and especially heads of government, heads of State and those holding responsible positions are expected to make responsible assurances/promises to their citizens, especially in times of crisis and distress.
"On behalf of the citizens, there would obviously be a reasonable expectation, that an assurance or a promise made by a senior Constitutional functionary, not less than the CM himself, would be give effect to. It cannot be reasonably said that no tenant or landlord would have believed the CM," the Court opined.
As per the normal conduct as also the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, surely there must have been a large number of tenants and landlords, who would have believed the assurance made by the CM.
In the present case, the Court said that in the backdrop of the commitment made, it is not the positive decision making which is arbitrary, but the lack of decision making or indecision, which is contrary to law.
"Once the CM had made a solemn assurance, there was a duty cast on the GNCTD to take a stand as to whether to enforce the said promise or not, and if so on what grounds or on the basis of what reasons," the judgment said.
A statement given in a consciously held press conference, in the background of the lockdown announced due to the pandemic and the mass exodus of migrant labourers, cannot be simply overlooked, the Court further said.
"The statements made by persons in power are trusted by the public who repose faith and believe in the same. Thus, “puffing” which may be permissible in commercial advertising, ought not to be recognisable and permissible in governance," the Court ruled.
The Court, therefore, concluded that Chief Minister and the Council of Ministers are to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, and an assurance given by the CM, in a press conference, i.e. a public platform, even without resulting in a formal policy or an order on behalf of the government, would create a valuable and legal right by applying the doctrine of promissory estoppel.
The Court, therefore, passed the following directions:
i. The Delhi government would, having regard to the statement made by the CM on 29th March, 2020, to landlords and tenants, take a decision as to the implementation of the same within a period of 6 weeks;
ii. The said decision would be taken, bearing in mind the larger interest of the persons to whom the benefits were intended to be extended in the said statement, as also any overriding public interest concerns.
iii. Upon the said decision being taken, the Delhi government would frame a clear policy in this regard.
iv. Upon the said decision being taken, if a Scheme or Policy is announced, the Petitioners’ case be considered under the said Scheme/Policy as per the procedure prescribed therein, if any. Remedies against any decision taken are left open.