State’s title to land cannot be perfected by invoking adverse possession doctrine on land it grabbed from its citizens

Vidya Devi & Anr v State of Himachal Pradesh, Civil Appeal Nos. 60­61 of 2020 (Arising out of SLP
(Civil) Nos. 467­468/2020 @D..No.36919/2018))

In 1967-68, the Himachal Pradesh Government (Respondent) forcibly took possession of rural land
undisputedly owned by the appellant, an illiterate, poor widow, to build a major district road, without following any legal process and without paying compensation for acquiring the land. The appellant, being unaware of her rights, did not file a suit for compensation. In 2004, some similarly situated persons whose lands had also been taken over by the Respondent for the same purpose, filed a Writ Petition (Anakh Singh & Ors. v. State of Himachal Pradesh & Ors., C.W.P. No. 1736 of 2010) claiming compensation before the High Court of Himachal Pradesh (HP HC) in which the HC ordered (in 2007) the State to acquire lands of all such people and compensate them under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (the 1894 Act). The State acquired only the petitioners’ lands, but not the lands of others, including the appellants. When she heard of this in 2010, she and her daughter filed before the HP HC praying that the land acquisition compensation be paid or acquisition proceedings be initiated. The State, in its reply, admitted that the petitioner’s land was taken over and used in the road construction, but argued that since the State had been in continuous possession for over 42 years, its title had got converted to ‘adverse possession’, and hence the appellants’ remedy lay in a civil suit. It also admitted that in Anakh Singh’s case (supra) a notification had been issued for acquisition under the 1894 Act. The HC held in 2013 that the matter involved disputed questions of law and fact for determining the starting point of limitation, which could not be adjudicated in Writ proceedings. The Appellant was granted permission to file a Civil Suit. The appellants’ review petition against this order was rejected by the HP HC in May 2014.

The Supreme Court said that the adverse possession argument ‘shocked the judicial conscience’ and said that the State could not be permitted to perfect its title over the land which it trespassed on, by invoking the doctrine of adverse possession to grab the property of its own citizens. It accepted the aggrieved appellants’ appeals against the HP HC’s two orders and set aside the two orders, exercising its special extraordinary powers under Articles 136 and 142 of the Constitution, and ordered that compensation be paid to the Appellant. It disposed of the plea regarding limitation by observing that “The cause of action in the present case is a continuing one, since the Appellant was compulsorily expropriated of her property in 1967 without legal sanction or following due process of law.” and by relying on P S Sadasivaswamy v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1975) 1 SCC 152,- “where the demand for justice is so compelling, a constitutional Court would exercise its jurisdiction with a view to promote justice, and not defeat it”. It made further scathing observations: “the Appellant being an illiterate person, who is a widow coming from a rural area has been deprived of her private property by the State without resorting to the procedure prescribed by law. The Appellant has been divested of her right to property without being paid any compensation whatsoever for over half a century. The present case is one where the demand for justice is so compelling since the State has admitted that the land was taken over without initiating acquisition proceedings, or any procedure known to law”.

Rajesh Haldipur
Rajesh Haldipur

Founder, Law Gyani

Rajesh is a qualified CA & CWA. He has served as a Director of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a Director of a large urban co-operative bank and Dean of a B-School over the years. He has taught Finance for over 20 years & trained participants from several Companies and B-Schools. He is an educator and a learner (he believes both are inextricably intertwined), and a knowledge product developer. Law Gyani, which he has founded to help Law Students with their exam preparations, and to understand nuances of the law.


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