The Delhi High Court on 23 July ruled that a chief minister’s promise made in a press conference is “enforceable” in court, while directing the Delhi government to decide in six weeks how to implement a promise made by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on 29 March last year that if a poor tenant couldn’t pay rent, the state would pay it.
The court was hearing a plea by five daily wage labourers who were unable to pay their monthly rent and wanted the chief minister to come good on his promise that was also an appeal to the landlords not to coerce poor tenants to pay up during the Covid-19 induced national lockdown.
“The saying ‘promises are meant to be broken’ is well known in the social context. However, (the) law has evolved the doctrines of legitimate expectation and promissory estoppel to ensure that promises made by the Government, its officials and other authorities are not broken and are, in fact, judicially enforceable, subject to certain conditions,” said a single-judge bench of Justice Prathiba M Singh.
“The promise/assurance/representation given by the chief minister clearly amounts to an enforceable promise, the implementation of which ought to be considered by the Government. Good governance requires that promises made to citizens, by those who govern, are not broken, without valid and justifiable reasons,” the court said.
The court directed the Delhi government to formulate a policy on this, saying it was not a “political promise” made at an election rally. It said that the statements made by people in power are trusted by the public and so “puffing”, which may be permissible in commercial advertising, ought not to be recognisable and permissible in governance.
“A statement given in a consciously held press conference, in the background of the lockdown announced due to the pandemic and the mass exodus of migrant labourers, cannot be simply overlooked. Proper governance requires the government to take a decision on the assurance given by the chief minister, and inaction on the same cannot be the answer,” the court said.
“The doctrine of promissory estoppel also being an equitable doctrine, equity requires this Court to hold the GNCTD responsible for the said indecision or lack of action, on the promise/assurance given by the chief minister,” the court said.
The Delhi government said it was waiting for a copy of the court order. “We will study the judgement and then respond,” a Delhi government spokesperson said.
The court said that once the chief minister had made a solemn assurance, there was a duty cast on the Delhi government to take a stand as to whether to enforce the said promise or not and if so on what grounds or on the basis of what reasons.
“…in the backdrop of the commitment made, it is not the positive decision making which is arbitrary, but the lack of decision making or indecision, which this Court holds to be contrary to law,” the court said in its 89-page judgment.
The court said that it cannot be said that “merely because of the fact that the conduct of the business of the government has to be in the name of the Governor, the chief minister can be shorn of all the responsibilities”.
“In a democratic setup, persons who hold an elected office, and especially heads of government, heads of State and those holding responsible positions are expected to make responsible assurances/promises to their citizens, especially in times of crisis and distress… It cannot be reasonably said that no tenant or landlord would have believed the chief minister.
“As per the normal conduct as the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, surely there must have been a large number of tenants and landlords, who would have believed the assurance made by the chief minister,” the court said that if the Delhi government had formulated a policy not to implement the promise, the court couldn’t have interfered.