Access to safe drinking water, a fundamental right under Article 21: Delhi HC

Access to safe drinking water, a fundamental right under Article 21: Delhi HC

The Delhi High Court ruled that the right to provide drinking water is central to life and that the State has an obligation under Article 21 of the Constitution to provide its people with safe drinking water.

In dealing with a petition filed by 53 former army veterans for the regularization of the Defense Service Enclave, which the Delhi Government considers to be an illegal colony, Justice Jayant Nath ordered the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Urban Planning, and the GNCTD to convene a meeting within 4 months to take necessary decisions to deal with the status of the colony.

The bench also held that essential services, including the ability to provide drinking water, cannot be refused to the petitioners exclusively on the basis that they live in an illegal colony. Subsequently, in compliance with the statute, the court ordered the Delhi Jal Board to make an effective agreement within 9 months in accordance with its usual practice for the supply of potable drinking water to the petitioners.

Background

The High Court was approached by a group of 53 former Armed Forces officers, veterans, and war widows requesting orders from the Union of India, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Urban Planning Development to provide their servants and agents with all civic amenities that are properly accessible to all people who own property in Delhi’s NCT. Those civic utilities include the right to supply Water, sewer links, sanitation, highways, and defense services, etc. The petitioners have sought suitable orders from the Court to designate the Defense Service Enclave, a region reserved for these persons, including the Delhi Master Plan 2020, for the respondents.

The genesis of the case dates to 1961, when, under a system formulated by the then Minister of Defense, VK Krishna Menon, these petitioners were to be assigned residential facilities. However, due to land unavailability, the government had acquired land in Kanpur and Khirkee Revenue Estate, but in 1966 those lands were never notified as urban areas.

They were thus paying taxes to the Municipal Corporation, Delhi, at urban rates, according to the petitioners. The petitioners have claimed that the MCD has refused to provide them with a single facility during their repeated efforts over the past 30 years, on the basis that the Defense Service Enclave is an unlawful colony and such an act is unconstitutional and arbitrary.

Timeline of Events

  1. 2002: The petitioners have lodged a written petition with the Delhi HC requesting the regularization of illegal colonies. 
  2. 2003: The affidavit was submitted by the Ministry of Defense in which it was evident that the lands were granted to the Community for the building of residential houses for residential purposes such that the Armed Forces might rehabilitate themselves in a fair and official manner in terms of the Army Order of May 1961.
  3. February 2010: The Ministry of Urban Development submitted that a policy decision to regularize illegal settlements, including public and private property in the Defense Service Enclave and portions of Sainik Farms, will be implemented by the end of 2010. 
  4. March 2010: Delhi Jal Board told the court that it will overcome the acute water shortage.
  5. 2014: The petitioners requested affirmation of authorized status as a government-approved scheme launched in 1961 and to provide guidelines to all agencies for the provision of essential facilities. Another written petition was submitted. 
  6. April 2018: The petitioners made representations to the Municipal Corporation South Delhi and Delhi Jal Board to provide them with the requisite facilities, unanswered.
  7. 2018: This writ petition was filed in the HC.

Grounds of Petition

  1. After years of trust by the respondents, no steps have been taken to provide the petitioners with relief.
  2. Many of the dwelling units that were only installed with lime and mortar have become old due to cement regulation and are thus in desperate need of repairs.
  3. Weak facilities, including roof leaks and floor cracks.
  4. The authorities including the local police do not allow the petitioners to repair/build their boundary walls. 
  5. Petitioners are being denied the basic amenities and the right to enjoy life with dignity.

Respondents Stand 

According to the Delhi Jal Board, among the 1639 colonies that fall on the list held by the NCT of Delhi, the Security Services Enclave is listed as one of the unauthorized colonies. It was also argued that the colony fell under the “unauthorized affluent colony” group and that most of the residents are not actually ex-servicemen, but regular buyers.

The stance of the Ministry of Urban Development is that the relief requested by the petitioners is the same as the petition for a writ in 2014 and that the present petition for a writ is also not maintainable. It was also argued that the colony in question is an illegal colony and the instructions for regularization must be given by the Govt, in compliance with the rules for the regularization of unauthorized colonies. From the NCT of Delhi who have to also coordinate and supervise the entire process of regularization.

It was submitted, according to the Govt of NCT of Delhi, that no individual has the right to assert regularization and that in cases where any colony is illegal or contrary to the master plan sanctioned, those colonies will not claim regularization as a matter of law.

Court’s Ruling

While the bench followed the High Court’s judgments in previous pleas filed in the case in 2002 and 2010, it was held that the petitioners belonged to a separate class of people and could not be identified as ‘affluent persons.’ On earlier occasions, the bench also took notice of the status of the respondents, especially the 2003 affidavit filed by the Ministry of Defense stating that a policy decision would be taken for regularizing the colonies; however, the bench noted that nothing was done.

When looking at the plight of veteran officers fighting in court for years for their rights, the bench noted that: “I also cannot help noticing that the petitioners are all retired defense personnel who have devoted the most productive period of their lives defending the nation’s borders and performing other dangerous and difficult tasks normally performed by defense service officers.”

The bench then instructed the respondents, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Urban Development and the NCT of Delhi to convene a meeting of officials who may take a decision in compliance with the court’s guidance.” The said Committee, thus appointed by the Secretary, respondent No. 1, is requested to take an effective judgment, as set out herein, expeditiously in compliance with the statute’ preferably within four months from today. The decision so taken shall be duly communicated to the petitioners.” The bench held.

On Right to Access of Drinking Water and Basic Amenities

The Court has relied on the A.P. case. Board II of Emission Management vs. Prof.M. V. Nayudu (Retd.) & Ors., (2001) 2 SCC 62, in which it was held that the right to access to drinking water is central to life and that the State has an obligation under Article 21 to supply its people with safe drinking water.

Accordingly, it was held that the petitioners should not be stripped of their right of access to drinking water solely on the basis that they were an illegal colony. For the past 50 years, the petitioners have lived in the said area and cannot be consistently deprived of this right of access to drinking and portable water.’ The bench held.

In view of this, the Court ordered the Delhi Jal Board to devise, in accordance with its usual practice, an adequate scheme for supplying the petitioners with portable drinking water in accordance with the statute. The scheme shall, ideally within a span of 9 months, be framed and enforced expeditiously.

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‘Law is not law if it violates the principles of eternal Justice’ very beautifully penned down by Lydia Maria Child and I strongly believe, if the law is not made for the goods of people then at least it should not violate the essence of the principle of law that is “JUSTICE”. Law is made to keep each section of society on an equal platform and being a member of the law fraternity, I will try to contribute to the welfare of society. I am Purnima and I graduated from zoology (Hons) and am currently pursuing a law degree from Lloyd law college, Greater Noida. My desire is to bring a fair and unjust environment to our society through my hard work and persistent efforts.