Olga Tellis & Ors. v. Bombay Municipal Corporation

Read the case analysis of a landmark judgement wherein the 5-judge bench of the Apex Court expanded the ambit of Right to Life guaranteed by Article 21 to include in it the 'right to livelihood'.
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMChief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, Justice S.M. Fazal Ali, Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar, Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy and Justice A. Vadarajan


These Writ Petitions portray the plight of lakhs of persons who live on pavements and in slums in the city of Bombay. They constitute nearly half the population of the city. The first group of petitions relates to pavement dwellers while the second group relates to both pavement and Basti or Slum dwellers. Those who have made pavements their homes exist in the midst of filth and squalor, which has to be seen to believe. Rabid dogs in search of stinking meat and cats in search of hungry rats keep them company. They cook and sleep where they ease, for no conveniences are available to them. Their daughters, come of age, bathe under the nosy gaze of the passerby, unmindful of the feminine sense of bashfulness. In a word, their plea is that the right to life is illusory without a right to the protection of the means by which alone life can be lived. And, the right to life can only be taken away or abridged by a procedure established by law, which has to be fair and reasonable, not fanciful or arbitrary such- as is prescribed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act or the Bombay Police Act. They also rely upon their right to reside and settle in any part of the country which is guaranteed by Article 19(1)(e).


The facts of the case are as follows: The petitioners consisted mostly of slum dwellers, pavement dwellers and some socially conscientious journalists. The pavement dwellers had come to the city for purposes of employment in various industries and had settled down on roads and pavements which gave them proximity to their places of work. They contended that if they were evicted, it would amount to depriving them off their livelihood and deprivation of livelihood was akin to deprivation of life itself which was guaranteed by Art. 21. The court, in its oft quoted ruling affirmed that right to life includes right to livelihood and eviction from their dwellings was indeed a deprivation of livelihood. Consequently, the decision to be made was whether the procedure involved in such deprivation was in fact just fair and reasonable, in order to bring it within the ambit of Art. 21.

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The main issues in the case were:

  1. Whether the-main plank of their argument is that the right to life which is guaranteed by Article 21 includes the right to livelihood?
  2. Was the evidence of the nexus between life and the means of livelihood?

Summary of court decision and judgment

The court at the very outset declared that the provisions were not arbitrary considering the fact that the occupants who would fall within the swathe of section 314 were illegal dwellers and they had created considerable public nuisance and obstruction. The court then proceeded to understand the tenor of the impugned provision. The provision merely says that the commissioner ‘may’ without notice evict illegal occupants.


The provision merely says that the commissioner ‘may’ without notice evict illegal occupants. It was only an enabling provision. By necessary implication, it meant that in ordinary course notice was to be given and it was only in special and extraordinary circumstances that he could dispense with the need for a notice. The onus of proof would then fall on the state to prove such exceptional circumstances. Taking into consideration the special nature of the case, the court went on to undertake the role of the commissioner. It ordered that the dwellers would be evicted only one month after the end of the rainy season.


The state was also directed to give alternate accommodation to certain dwellers. This was not a condition precedent for eviction and was merely to give effect to certain earlier assurances by the government.