The year 2021 was a rather eventful one in the Supreme Court of India’s (virtual) corridors, which ruled on a range of issues from personal liberty to the contentious farm laws.
For the Union government, the Supreme Court’s rulings were a mixed bag. The government got a favourable ruling for its ambitious redevelopment project in Delhi’s Lutyens zone, better known as the Central Vista project, but faced censure on policy issues such as farm laws and vaccine pricing, as well as in the infamous Pegasus case.
The top court grabbed the headlines over its handling of cases concerning the fundamental rights of citizens, especially incarcerated journalists. On corporate law matters, the top court pronounced its long-awaited verdict in the Tata-Mistry dispute.
The calendar year also saw the court reject the plea of mobile service providers for relief on the computation of adjusted gross revenue (AGR), set a precedent in the arbitration law to clarify the validity of provisions in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, and issue directives for the speedy disposal of bounced-cheque cases.
Here’s a look at some of the most important developments in India’s top court this year:
Farm laws, protests, and panel
After a host of petitions challenging the farm laws were filed before various high courts as well as the Supreme Court, the top court agreed to hear the case in a consolidated manner. In the face of continued protests by various farmer groups and farm unions on the borders of India’s national capital, a Supreme Court bench led by then Chief Justice of India SA Bobde stayed the implementation of the three farm laws. In its interim order passed on January 12, the apex court also set up a panel of experts and representatives to facilitate dialogue between the protesting farmers and the government.
The stay order was a rather extraordinary step by the court considering that jurisprudence requires constitutional courts to establish that a law is ex-facie unconstitutional before staying their implementation. However, in the case of the farm laws, the court took this unprecedented step even before it got to dealing with the question of the constitutional validity of the laws.
Pegasus Spyware controversy, appointment of probe panel and quoting from Geoge Orwell’s 1984
In its detailed order passed in a case seeking a probe into allegations that Indian citizens were snooped on using Israeli spyware Pegasus, the Supreme Court expressed the need to protect the fundamental rights of the citizenry. Despite being given a number of opportunities by the court to clear the air, when the Central government refrained from answering whether the Pegasus spyware was used by it or not, the Supreme Court said that the garb of “national security” cannot be used every time a question concerning the rights of the people is raised.
The Supreme Court, headed by sitting Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, ordered the setting up of a panel constituting technical experts to probe the matter and rejected the government’s request to let the matter be looked into by a committee formed by the government itself. The court’s 46-page order, interestingly, begins by quoting George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
Questioning the rationale behind the government’s vaccine pricing policy
At the end of April, when the country was battling a sharp rise in daily Covid cases, the Supreme Court questioned the Central government over its vaccine pricing policy. The court asked the Centre to explain why differential pricing was set out for the Central and State governments, emphasising that “the Supreme Court cannot be a mute spectator” in the face of a grotesque health crisis.
The court had taken suo motu cognisance of the distribution of essential goods and medical supplies across the country and subsequently asked the government to be flexible in its policies amid the unprecedented pandemic. Later, in June, the court also termed as “arbitrary” the Centre’s decision to make those in the 18-45 age group pay for vaccination when previous legs of the drive saw free administration of the jab.
Tata vs Mistry saga
In March, the apex court delivered its final judgment in the long-drawn legal battle between Tata Sons and Cyrus Mistry. The court ruled in favour of Tata Sons and set aside the order of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal that, among other things, had reinstated Cyrus Mistry as the Executive Chairman of the Tata Group.
A three-judge bench termed it an “irony” that Mistry, who succeeded Ratan Tata as the Executive Chairman, had accused the board of oppression of minority shareholders. It said that minority shareholders were not automatically entitled to a seat on a private company’s board. The court dismissed Mistry’s case ending the courtroom war between Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry.
Establishing validity of Emergency Arbitration awards passed by foreign tribunals
Setting a precedent in what was uncharted territory, the Supreme Court in August ruled that emergency awards passed by emergency arbitrators are valid and enforceable under the Indian law of arbitration.
The legal question of validity of such awards came before the Supreme Court in a legal tussle between Amazon and Future group. While Amazon sought enforcement of an emergency award passed in its favour by an emergency arbitrator of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Future Retail Ltd questioned the validity of such awards, arguing that India’s Arbitration and Conciliation Act finds no mention of emergency awards. The top court settled the legal question in favour of Amazon, paving the way for the two retail giants to proceed with their legal war basis this precedent.
Upholding IBC provisions on personal insolvency of guarantors
In May, the Supreme Court ruled that provisions in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code that allow for insolvency proceedings to be commenced against promoters who stood as personal guarantors for loans are valid.
The court asserted that the commencement of insolvency proceedings against a defaulting entity does not absolve a personal guarantor of obligations under the law. Therefore, personal insolvency can very well be commenced against such guarantors, the court said.
The court’s ruling affects scores of businessmen who had challenged these provisions in various high courts as and when they faced personal insolvency proceedings started by lenders. Venugopal Dhoot, Kapil Wadhawan and Anil Ambani are among the promoters of distressed entities who challenged the law, albeit unsuccessfully.
AGR dues case
In July, the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by telecom companies Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea seeking re-computation of their dues towards Adjusted Gross Revenue. These pleas had come up before the Supreme Court in January, two months ahead of the deadline set by the Supreme Court’s 2020 judgment for the first installment of the total payout to be made by telecom companies. The court refused to grant the companies their prayer for re-computation, a request that had been rejected by the top court in the past, too
Clearing the way for the Central government’s ambitious Central Vista project
The challenge mounted against the change in land use notification issued by the Central government in 2020 was dismissed by the Supreme Court on January 5 in a 2:1 majority ruling. This ruling cleared the path for the construction of the central vista project in the Lutyens zone in Delhi. The court had heard the case in detail, reserving its order in November 2020.
Interestingly, the Central government conducted a bhumi pujan for the site even as the judgment in the case remained pending. However, the apex court was assured that no construction work would be carried out till its verdict, which led it to allow the puja to be carried out December 10 last year. In the first week of 2021, the court passed its judgment and gave the green signal for construction work to begin.
Amtek Insolvency case finally sees closure
As the year drew to a close, the Supreme Court brought the curtains down on a long-standing insolvency case involving auto-parts maker Amtek Auto. The company, which was among the first distressed entities to be referred for resolution under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, saw several ups and downs in the process, right from multiple rounds of bidding to successful bidders wanting an out. After four long years, the court directed the successful resolution applicant — Deccan Value Investors — to ensure that the implementation of the resolution plan was carried out within four weeks, ending at the end of this year.
Speedy disposal of cheque-bounce cases
On April 16, the Supreme Court issued a slew of directions to facilitate speedy disposal of cases where cheques were dishonoured. Under the Negotiable Instruments Act, dishonour of a cheque is a criminal offence under Section 138. The top court, in addition to its guidelines, also asked the government to make necessary amendments to the Act to allow for such cases to be disposed of expeditiously, so as to also reduce the docket of pending cases before lower courts.
This court issued the order shortly after it had set up a panel to recommend steps that can be taken to achieve the goal of speedy disposal of such cases.And much more: In a somewhat novel development, the Supreme Court heard an appeal filed by the Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal, in his capacity as an officer of the court. Venugopal challenged problematic rulings in the Bombay High Court in two POCSO cases. The court also shone a light on the importance of personal liberty in the case of comedian Munawar Faruqui, who faced incarceration without due process of law being followed. Shortly after quashing a sedition case against a veteran journalist, the Supreme Court also agreed to examine the validity of the colonial law on sedition in a separate plea filed by another journalist from the North-East.