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Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985): The Right to Livelihood Under the Right to Life

The Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation case, decided in 1985 by the Supreme Court of India, is a landmark judgment in the arena of socio-economic rights in India. This case addressed the question of the rights of pavement dwellers in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) when faced with eviction by the municipal authorities.

Background of the Case:

The case emerged when the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) sought to evict pavement dwellers and slum residents, viewing them as encroachments. This action was challenged by journalists Olga Tellis and others on behalf of these residents, asserting that the right to livelihood was an integral part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Key Takeaways from the Judgement:

  1. Right to Livelihood Under Right to Life: The Supreme Court held that the right to livelihood was bound up with the right to life as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. If the right to livelihood were not treated as a component of the right to life, the easiest way to deprive a person of their right to life would be to deprive them of their means of livelihood.
  2. Balancing Individual Rights with Public Interest: The court recognized that the eviction might be justified under the larger goal of beautification of the city, but it emphasized that eviction should ensure minimal harm and inconvenience to those evicted. The Court directed that evictions should not take place during the monsoon and that an adequate notice period should be given.
  3. Article 19(1)(e) Consideration: The Court also considered Article 19(1)(e) – the right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India. While the Court recognized the right, it also acknowledged the state’s right to impose restrictions on it in the interest of the general public.

Critical Analysis:

  • Broadening Scope of Article 21: This case is celebrated for its expansive interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution. By recognizing the right to livelihood as part of the right to life, the Court reaffirmed its commitment to adapting constitutional rights to address socio-economic challenges.
  • Pragmatic Balancing: The Court tried to strike a balance between individual rights and the larger public interest. While it did not prohibit evictions, it imposed guidelines to ensure the humane treatment of those affected.
  • Impact on Future Jurisprudence: The recognition of socio-economic rights under the umbrella of the right to life in this case influenced several subsequent decisions, wherein the Court adopted a more expansive and humanitarian interpretation of Article 21.

In conclusion, the Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation case stands as a testament to the judiciary’s evolving interpretation of constitutional provisions, always leaning towards justice, dignity, and the betterment of the individual, especially those in vulnerable sections of society.

Shivendra Pratap Singh


High Court Lucknow

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