Apex court cautions chief ministers on discretionary powers


New Delhi : The Supreme Court has held that a chief minister should eschew arbitrariness and discrimination while using discretionary powers in the disbursal of relief funds as these powers are not unfettered or unaccountable.

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“In a democracy governed by the rule of law, no government or authority has the right to do what it pleases. Where the rule of law prevails there is nothing like unfettered discretion or unaccountable action,” said the apex court bench of Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice A.K. Patnaik in their judgment delivered Thursday.

“The disbursement or payment to undeserving cases can be questioned,” the judgment said.

“When there are no guidelines or when it is difficult to limit the discretion in a high functionary by guidelines, the authority should be careful in exercising discretionary power, so as to ensure that it does not give room for nepotism, favouritism or discrimination,” said the court.

“Relief amount cannot be granted, merely because the recipient happens to be the friend, supporter of the chief minister or belongs to his political party,” the court said.

Justice Raveendran said: “But this does not mean that no discretion can be vested in an authority or functionary of high standing. Nor does it mean that certain funds cannot be placed at the disposal of a high functionary for disbursal at his discretion in unforeseen circumstances.”

The apex court said this while setting aside the Rajasthan High Court’s Dec 18, 2007, decision in which it held that all minor victims of rape should be treated equally for the grant of relief by the chief minister under the relief fund. The petition was filed by social activist Sanyam Lodha.

The petition said that in Rajasthan from January 2004 to August 2005, 392 cases of rape of minor girls were filed. Out of these, 13 were given assistance from the relief fund ranging from Rs.10,000-50,000. However, a rape victim was given a sum of Rs.5 lakh June 25, 2005 and another was given Rs.3.95 lakh Aug 11, 2004, in an arbitrary manner.

Setting aside the high court order, the apex court said that the mere fact that in two cases of rape, involving “extreme viciousness and depravity”, high compensation was granted keeping in view the “gravity of the offence and the surrounding circumstances”, was by itself not sufficient to interfere with the discretion of the chief minister.

Pointing out that the relief fund was to be used for various purposes including natural calamities, the judges cautioned against the grant of excessive compensation in one or two cases. “The amount granted should, therefore, be reasonable to meet the immediate need of coming out of the trauma or catastrophe,” the court said.