In a fillip to private ownership of mineral-rich land in Malabar, the Supreme Court has declared that a jenmi or the hereditary owner has exclusive right not only of the soil under his possession but also the subsoil and minerals underneath the surface of his land.

The decision comes at a time when the State is grappling with the issue of rampant quarrying without the least concern shown for environment safeguards, especially in the landslip-prone Western Ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The judgment, dated July 8, was delivered by a Bench led by Justice R.M. Lodha, and comprising Justices J. Chelameswar and Madan B. Lokur on a bunch of appeals titled, Threesiamma Jacob and Others Versus Geologist, Department of Mining and Others, filed by private land owners questioning the State’s rights to the minerals underneath.”

High Court’s ‘no’

The Kerala High Court had earlier rejected their submission that the land owners were entitled to the rights over the subsoil.

But the Supreme Court decided otherwise when asked to examine the “amplitude of the rights of the jenmom land holders called jenmis in the Malabar area of the Kerala State and decide whether a jenmi is entitled to the rights of subsoil/the minerals lying beneath the surface of the land.”

The judgment, authored by Justice Chelameswar, lays a judicial precedent by declaring that “we are of the opinion that there is nothing in the law which declares that all mineral wealth subsoil rights vest in the State.”

It goes on to conclude that “on the other hand, the ownership of subsoil/mineral wealth should normally follow the ownership of the land, unless the owner of the land is deprived of the same by some valid process. In the instant appeals, no such deprivation is brought to our notice and therefore we hold that the appellants are the proprietors of the minerals obtaining in their lands.”

In the court, the landowners had claimed absolute ownership and proprietary rights over both the soil and subsoil.

State’s argument

In court, the State argued that with the extension of the pre-Independence Ryotwari settlement of land revenue in Malabar, jenmis had ceased to be the absolute owners and proprietors of the land held by them. The Ryotwari settlement had the effect of transferring the ownership of subsoil/minerals to the government.

But the landowners countered that Ryotwari settlement was only a system to collect revenue and did not “in any way affect their proprietary rights in the lands.”

Examining the claims, the Bench said no law made by the Republic of India declares that the State has proprietary rights over the subsoil and minerals on all land.

The court pointed to statutes such as Coking Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1972 and Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, which only contain express provisions for “acquisition of the mines and rights in or over the landfrom which coal is obtainable.”

It said even the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 only regulates mining activities.