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‘Distress’ under the act should be interpreted broadly: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court shed light upon the meaning of ‘land’ and ‘distress’ under the West Bengal Restoration of Alienated Land Act, 1973. The appeal was partly allowed by the bench comprising of J. Sanjay Kishan Kaul, J. Aniruddha Bose and J. Krishna Murari in the case of Smt. Renuka Dey & Ors. v. Naresh Chandra Gope (D) THR. LRS. & Anr.  [Civil Appeal No. 6264 of 2013].  

The appellants, original owners of the land, conveyed their land to the respondents by a deed executed on 26th April, 1968 for a specific consideration amount. The particular land included parts of pond(tank) and a garden. In the deed itself, the reasons for such a transfer were specified as repayment of loan, meeting educational costs and purchase of another property. The appellants urged that along with this deed, there was a simultaneous deed executed for the reconveyance of the said property between the same parties. The transferors applied for restoration of the property in 1974, which stood rejected by the Special Officer as well as the High Court of Calcutta (under constitutional writ jurisdiction). Civil writ petition was filed by the appellants before the HC who remanded the matter to a Special Officer who sustained the application of restoration. The purchasers invoked writ jurisdiction on the ground that the land at question was a homestead non-agricultural land and there was no sign of distress, hence the Act was not applicable relying on the case of Prosad Kumar Dhara v. Kamala Kanta Dikshit [AIR 1982 Cal 532].

The learned counsel for the appellants argued before that SC that “the deed that what was sold was a pond, which can mean tank, as also highland trees as part of fishery”. He justified restoration on the grounds that the deed was coupled with the agreement of reconveyance and that distress is to be given a “liberal construction” as held in Chitta Ranjan Ghish v. State of West Bengal [(1976) s CLJ 180].

The SC, taking all the previous orders, facts and cases into consideration, stated that “Under Section 4(1)(a) of the Act, three situations have been contemplated as alternative conditions to enable a land holder to seek restoration of land already conveyed by him. These are “in distress” or “in need of money for the maintenance of himself and his family” or “for meeting the cost of his cultivation”.

“These are interconnected situations and the vendors’ reasons for transfer, spelt out in the conveyance deed itself, in our view, comes within the broad terms expressed in the statute”. Hence, it was considered that the appellants were in fact distressed out of which the deed was executed. However, the SC held that the nature of the land was still a disputed topic. The SC directed the matter to a Tribunal stating that if the land was covered by the said Statute then the restoration would be executed, and if not, the appellants had no such right or claim.

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