Significance of notice in Najma v GNCTD: Holding politicians accountable for their promises

Scores of tenants are virtually trapped in their rented accommodations for not being able to pay rent which they expected would be paid by the Delhi government as per its promise.
Delhi High Court
Delhi High Court

On December 17, 2020, the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Government of Delhi in Najma and Ors. v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi. This seemingly nondescript event was a significant step towards providing substantial financial relief to lakhs of people belonging to the most vulnerable sections of our society, and potentially transforming the manner in which our political leaders conduct themselves in public.

To properly appreciate the significance of this notice, it's important for us to know what the writ petition is about. In this case, the petitioners – five tenants and one landlord – have requested the Delhi High Court to compel the Delhi government to honour the promise made by its Chief Minister on March 29, 2020.

Just four days after the imposition of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Chief Minister of Delhi made a solemn promise to the people of Delhi that if tenants would not be able to pay their rent due to poverty even after the postponement of rent collection by landlords, the Government of Delhi would pay the outstanding rent to the landlords on the tenants’ behalf.

This promise was made by the Chief Minister in an attempt to stop lakhs of people from leaving Delhi. They were leaving because they had lost their livelihood and had no capacity to pay rent, and sustain themselves through the lockdown. In the absence of public transport, a lot of them decided to simply walk hundreds of miles to their native villages; many of them died. The health and humanitarian crisis triggered by this mass migration was a disgrace to the nation and the government. To persuade these people not to leave in panic, the Chief Minister assured them that they could continue living in their rented accommodations without worrying about paying rent. The assurance worked, and a lot of tenants decided to stay put while their rent kept on accumulating.

When the burden of rent became unbearable, and when the Delhi government did not volunteer to help as per its promise, the tenants and landlords wrote letters to the Chief Minister requesting him to honour his promise. Between the last week of August and the last day of October, the Chief Minister received more than 360 such letters and emails, but he failed to reply to any of them in any meaningful way. With no relief in sight, they were left with no option but to move the High Court of Delhi. And after four hearings – on November 11 and 25, and December 8 and 17 - notice was finally issued to the government.

The government was directed to file a counter-affidavit within four weeks, ie by January 14, 2021, clarifying its stand on its promise. The government will have to explain why, despite passage of more than nine months, and after receiving more than 360 requests from aggrieved tenants and landlords, it has failed to honour its promise. One can only hope that while preparing its reply, the government will keep this advice in mind: ”अच्छी सरकारें बहाने नहीं बनाती” (Good governments do not make excuses); an advice given by Arvind Kejriwal to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

If this petition succeeds in its endeavour, the impact would be massive. Lakhs of tenants and landlords would be directly benefited. According to a survey conducted by the Directorate of Economics & Statistics (DES) of the Delhi government between November 2018 and November 2019, around 33% of Delhi lives in rented accommodations. The current population of Delhi (unofficial sources) is around 3 crore. This means there are around 1 crore tenants in Delhi.

Since no further data is available to exactly know what percentage of these 1 crore tenants have been hit by the lockdown so severely that they are unable to pay their rent, one has to resort to common sense, and make reasonable assumptions. If just 20% of these tenants are assumed to have lost their livelihood and savings (which is why they are unable to pay their rent), we are talking of 20 lakh people. One can argue that this is an extremely conservative estimate, but even so, it means that this petition has the potential of positively impacting the lives of at least 20 lakh people.

The only way to reduce economic distress in the short run, according to Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, is by giving more money to poorer sections of society. Kaushik Basu, the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, also tweeted in November 2020 that we are in a situation rarely seen before and that we must face up to the facts, and make policy corrections. “The poor need fiscal support", he said.

If the burden of paying their outstanding rent is taken off their shoulders, millions of tenants would be able to live with dignity and peace of mind once again. Right now, they are living under the constant fear of getting evicted from their rented accommodation in the biting cold while all their belongings are withheld as collateral. To avoid this nightmare, some tenants are taking huge amount of loans at high interest rates. So instead of paying rent to the landlord, they are now paying installments to the bank/money-lender out of their meagre incomes. They could have used this money to provide nutrition and education to their children.

The incomes of some petitioners have plummeted so low that if they don’t leave Delhi immediately, the very survival of their children would be jeopardized. But they cannot leave, because they are required to clear their outstanding rent before vacating their rented accommodation. In other words, they are virtually ‘trapped’ in their rented accommodations for not being able to pay rent which they expected would be paid by the Delhi government as per its promise.

In a recent judgment (State of Jharkhand v. Brahmputra Metallics Ltd., Ranchi), delivered by the Supreme Court on December 1, 2020, Justice DY Chandrachud, in his inimitable style said:

“The state must discard the colonial notion that it is a sovereign handing out doles at its will. Its policies give rise to legitimate expectations that the state will act according to what it puts forth in the public realm...representations by public authorities need to be held to scrupulous standards, since citizens continue to live their lives based on the trust they repose in the State.”

He concluded,

“When public authorities fail to adhere to their representations without providing an adequate reason to the citizens for this failure, it violates the trust reposed by citizens in the State.”

If the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation, explained and expanded by the Supreme Court in the above judgment, is applied by the Delhi High Court to this case, one can expect a tectonic shift – not just in Delhi, but all over the country – in how our political leaders conduct themselves in public. In the future, they would think twice before making any promise to the people because they would know that they would be held accountable to their words. They would know that they cannot just say anything in public and get away with it. They would do their homework before giving any undertaking, and make only such promises which they know they can honour.

If that happens, one can hope to see a significant decline in the recklessness with which the trust of ordinary citizens is toyed with, and often broken with impunity by our ministers, bureaucrats, elected representatives, and politicians in general.

Jagdeep Chhokar is a co-founder & Trustee of Association of Democratic Reforms, and former Director-in-charge of IIM-Ahmedabad. Gaurav Jain is a Delhi-based advocate.

Note: Jain appeared for the petitioners in the matter before the Delhi High Court.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.

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