Case Brief of Olga Tellis and Ors. Vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation and Ors.

This Legal case commentary focuses on Olga Tellis and Ors. Vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation and Ors[i] (“Olga Tellis”). It focuses on specific legal issues regarding Article 21, the constitutional validity of some provisions in the BMC Act, 1888, the right to livelihood, and the validity of the rule of estoppel followed by the conclusion and the judgment of the apex court.

In 1981, all the inhabitants of the city of Bombay’s slums and pavement were ordered to leave by the state of Maharashtra and the Bombay Municipal Corporation. These pavement dwellers were individuals and families who had built makeshift homes on the sidewalks and footpaths for a number of socioeconomic reasons. The BMC deemed these houses, which were frequently made from temporary materials such as tarpaulin sheets, wood, or corrugated iron, to be unauthorized structures. Accordingly, on July 13, the then-Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mr. A. R. Antulay, gave the order to evict slum and pavement residents from Bombay and deport them to their native land. The BMC claimed that these pavement houses created a number of concerns, including blocking of public spaces, traffic congestion, and environmental and health hazards. The corporation stated that these structures were unclean and unsafe and that their demolition was necessary for maintaining public health and safety. The planned eviction included the dismantling of these unauthorized dwellings, leaving the pavement dwellers with no alternative housing or shelter. The residents then filed a writ petition along with Olga Tellis, a social worker and activist, in the Supreme Court of India seeking an order of injunction prohibiting the officers of the State Government and the Bombay Municipal Corporations from carrying out the Chief Minister’s order after learning of his declaration. Since being in the city allowed them to earn a living and required suitable resettlement if the evictions occurred, the residents argued that such a move would violate their right to life. They argued that the proposed eviction violated their right to life and livelihood under Article 21 of the Constitution[ii]. They argued that the right to life entails more than just survival and includes the right to live with dignity, security, and basic amenities such as shelter. An ad interim injunction was passed by the High Court of Bombay, and it will be in effect until July 21, 1981. The respondents concurred that the huts won’t be taken down until October 15, 1981. In violation of the agreement, petitioners were packed into State Transport buses on July 23, 1981, and expelled from Bombay.

The issues in the case in front of the Supreme Court of India were-

  • whether a pavement dweller’s eviction would constitute denying them the right to a livelihood protected by Article 21 of the Constitution?
  • Was it arbitrary and unreasonable for the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888[iii], provisions that permitted the clearance of encroachments without prior notice?
  • Whether it was unconstitutional to refer to pavement dwellers as trespassers under the Constitution?
  • Whether the state is obliged to provide alternative accommodation to the affected people?


Contention by the petitioners:

  1. Violation of the Right to Life:

The petitioners argued that the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) planned eviction and demolition of their homes violated their fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. They contended that the right to life includes more than just physical existence and includes the right to live with dignity, security, and basic necessities. The petitioners claimed that evicting them would deprive them of their fundamental human dignity. They contended that having access to shelter and a safe place to live is an essential component of living a meaningful and dignified life. They emphasized that if they did not have a proper place to dwell, they would be exposed to many difficulties such as harsh weather, crime, and physical harm.

  1.  Right to livelihood:

The petitioners argued that their right to livelihood was inextricably linked to their current residence, the pavement dwellings. They maintained that eviction without alternative housing would not only make them homeless but would also deprive them of their means of earning a living. They highlighted that many of them were involved in economic activities such as street vending, small businesses, or daily wage work near their homes. They claimed that the proximity of their residences to places where they could find work was important to their livelihoods. Without suitable alternatives, the eviction would disrupt their economic stability, resulting in unemployment, financial distress, and increased marginalization. The petitioners emphasized that the right to livelihood was not only an economic right but also a constitutional guarantee that allowed them to support themselves and their families. They argued that the eviction without alternative housing and income options would violate their right to earn a living and create a cycle of poverty.

  1. Lack of alternative accommodation:

The petitioners touched upon a serious issue with the BMC’s lack of alternate accommodation or rehabilitation efforts. They maintained that the state had duties to people impacted by eviction to mitigate the adverse impacts of eviction by providing suitable alternative houses. The petitioners claimed that the BMC’s failure to provide alternative accommodation left them without an appropriate resettlement option. They claimed that the lack of alternatives violated their rights since it would result in homelessness and increased vulnerability. They claimed that the state was responsible for ensuring the right to shelter and ensuring that impacted individuals did not leave without a place to live. The petitioners emphasised that the BMC, as a public authority, owed duty to the marginalised and vulnerable parts of society to satisfy their housing needs. They maintained that, considering the impact the eviction would have on the lives of the pavement dwellers, the state should have made enough accommodations for alternative housing or rehabilitation before beginning the eviction process.

Contentions of the defendant:

  1. Public Health and Safety:

The BMC claimed that the petitioners’ pavement houses were illegal and posed significant risks to public health and safety. They claimed that these structures blocked public places, caused traffic congestion, and contributed to the city’s filthy atmosphere. The BMC maintained that the eviction was necessary to address these concerns while maintaining the city clean and orderly.

  1. Municipal Regulations and Urban Develeopment:

The BMC alleged that the pavement dwellings violated municipal regulations and norms. They contended that allowing unauthorised buildings to stay on public sidewalks and pathways would set a poor precedent and hamper the city’s efforts towards planned urban development. The BMC said that the eviction was necessary to enforce the regulations while ensuring compliance with the city’s development goals.

  1. Improving Living Conditions:

The BMC claimed that the eviction will eventually lead to an improvement in the city’s residents’ living standards. They argued that by removing unauthorised pavement houses, the BMC will be able to handle issues such as traffic congestion, sanitation problems, and environmental hazards. The BMC stated that the eviction will benefit the city’s residents by providing a more organised and hygienic urban environment.


According to Article 39 (a) of the Indian Constitution, which serves as a fundamental basis of State Policy, the State shall give particular attention to its policies in order to ensure that people, both men and women, have the equal right to a means of subsistence.[iv] Another guiding principle is found in Article 41, which states that the State is required to effectively guarantee the right to work in the event of unemployment and unjustified wants, subject to the limits of its economic capabilities and level of development.[v] According to Article 37, the Directive principles are essential to the nation’s government even though no court may apply them.[vi]

To comprehend and interpret the meaning and content of fundamental rights, the principles outlined in Articles 39(a) and 41 must be viewed as equally fundamental. It would be quite irreproachable to exclude the right to subsistence from the scope of the right to life if the State were required to provide citizens with enough means of subsistence and the right to work.

The government cannot be forced to give its people sufficient means of support or employment through constructive action. Anyone deprived of their right to a means of subsistence, however, may dispute the deprivation as a breach of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 if it does not occur in line with the just and fair method established by law.

The government and the municipal corporation countered by saying that the dwellers must be estopped. Estoppel is a judicial device that allows the court to “estop” someone from making allegations. According to the court, “there can be no estoppel against the Constitution,” and it rejected the government’s estoppel defense. The court said that the right to life of the dwellers is at risk in this case.

The court after considering the arguments of both sides and held that no one has the right to encroach on sidewalks, pavements, or any other area designated or reserved for public use. The court denied to find that the evicted people had a right to a new location to stay but it ordered to provide sites to those residents who were mapped in the 1976 Census. It also ordered that unless the land was needed for public purposes and alternative sites were provided, slums that had been there for 20 years or more were not to be removed and that high priority must be given to resettlement.

Defects of Law

The absence of expicit protection for the right to shelter as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution was one of the main defects in the law. The petitioners argued that Article 21’s right to life included the right to shelter, but the lack of a clear provision addressing this right left it open to interpretation and vulnerable to infringement. Another defect in the law was the absence of specific provisions and guidelines for the rehabilitation of evicted individuals. The petitioners argued that the state owed it to those affected by the eviction to provide suitable alternative housing and rehabilitative services. The absence of specific laws describing the scope and type of rehabilitation measures, on the other hand, allowed for discrepancies and inadequate implementation of such programmes.

However, in its judgement the apex court had identified these defects in the law and addressed them. The court recognised the right to shelter as an integral part of the right to life and established the duty of the government to offer suitable alternate accommodations and rehabilitation measures in cases of eviction. The verdict in this case helped fill several gaps and rectify defects in the law concerning housing rights and procedures for eviction.


The Supreme Court of India drew many significant conclusions from the facts and arguments presented in the Olga Tellis case. First and foremost, the court acknowledged that the right to shelter is a component of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It inferred that the right to life comprises more than just physical existence and includes the right to live with dignity and security, which includes having a roof over one’s head. This inference was essential in establishing the right to shelter as a constitutional right. Further, the court inferred that when the state executes evictions, it is obligated to provide suitable alternate housing or rehabilitation measures. It stated that eviction without such provisions would violate the affected individuals’ fundamental rights, leaving them homeless and vulnerable. This inference emphasized the state’s responsibility to mitigate the adverse effects of eviction and to defend the rights of the affected individuals, thereby protecting their right to shelter.

Moreover, the court acknowledged the importance of striking a balance between public benefit and the protection of individual rights. While accepting the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s concerns about public health and safety, the court concluded that the rights of the marginalized and vulnerable sections of society should not be jeopardized. It emphasized that, even when the public benefit is a legitimate concern, individuals’ rights must be preserved and protected, especially when their livelihoods are at stake.

The ruling expanded the definition of the right to life. All of this suggests that the court is prepared to uphold this principle in the interest of the greater good.

[i] Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation, A.I.R. 1986 S.C. 180

[ii] India Const. art. 21

[iii] The Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888

[iv] India Const. art. 39. cl. (a)

[v] India Const. art. 41

[vi] India Const. art. 37

Author: Venkata Ashish Duggirala

Jindal Global Law School

O P Jindal Global University