Sinha, C. J. -
(1.)In this batch of 22 petitions under Art. 32 of the Constitution, the petitioners impugn the constitutionality of the Travancore-Cochin Land Tax Act, XV of 1955, as amended by the travancore-Cochin Land Tax (Amendment) Act, X of 1957, which hereinafter will be referred to as the Act. The Act came into force on June 21, 1955, and the Amending Act on August 6, 1957. The petitioners are owners of forest areas in certain parts of the State of Kerala which, before the reorganisation of States, formed part of the State of Madras. The respondents to the petitions are:(1) the State of Kerala and (2) the District Collector, Palghat.
(2.)These petitioners are based on allegations, which are, more or less, similar, and the following allegations made in Writ Petition No. 42 of 1958 may be taken as typical and an extreme case, which was placed before us in detail to bring into bold relief the full significance and effect of the legislation impugned in these cases. The petitioner in Petition 42 of 1958 is a citizen of India, who owns forests in certain parts of Palghat Taluk in Palghat District, which was part of the State of Madras before the reorganisation of States. These forests are now in the State of Kerala. Up to the time that these forests were in the State of Madras, as it then was, the Madras Preservation of Private Forests Act, Madras Act XXVII of 1949, governed these forests. Even after these areas were transferred to the State of Kerala, the said Madras Act, XXVII of 1949, continued to apply to these forests. Under the said Madras Act the owners of forests, like the petitioner, could not sell, mortgage, lease or otherwise alienate any portion of their forests without the previous sanction of the District Collector; nor could they, without similar permission, cut trees or do any act likely to denude the forest or diminish its utility, as such. The District Collector, in exercise of the powers under the Act, does not ordinarily permit the cutting of more than a small number of trees in the forest. Thus the petitioner has not the right fully to exploit the forest wealth in his forest area and has to depend upon the previous permission of the Collector. In exercise of the powers given to the Collector under the Madras Act aforesaid, the petitioner's lessee was given permission to cut certain trees in his forest, which brings to the petitioner by way of income from the forest, a sum of Rs. 3,100 per year. Under the Act, a tax called land tax at a flat rate of Rs. 2 per acre has been imposed on the petitioner. In pursuance of the provisions of the Act, as amended as aforesaid, the District Collector of Palghat, purporting to act under the provisions of S. 5A of the Act, issued a notice to the petitioner provisionally assessing the petitioner's forest under the said Act to a sum of fifty thousand rupees per annum and informing the petitioner that, if no representation was made within thirty days, the said provisional assessment would be confirmed and a demand notice would be issued. As there has been no survey of the area of forest land in the petitioner's possession, the District Collector has conjectured the said area to be twenty-five thousand acres. The petitioner had made an application to the District Collector under the Madras Preservation of Private Forests Act for felling trees in an area of one thousand acres, but the Collector was pleased to grant permission to cut trees from 450 acres only in the course of five years at the rate of 90 acres a year. The petitioner has leased out that right to another person, who made the highest bid of Rs. 3,100/- per year, as the landlord's fee for the right to cut and remove the trees, and other minor produce. Besides the demand aforesaid, the revenue authorities have levied about four thousand rupees as tax on the surveyed portions of the forest. The petitioner's forest has large areas of arid rocks, rivulets and gorges. The petitioner, in those circumstances, questions the constitutional validity of the Act, the provisions of which will be examined hereinafter.
(3.)These petitions have been opposed on behalf of the first respondent and the allegations and submissions made in the petitions are sought to be controverted by a counter affidavit sworn to by an Assistant Secretary of the Kerala Government in the Revenue Department. It is in similar terms, as a matter of fact printed in most of these cases. It is contended therein on behalf of the respondent that the petitions are not maintainable inasmuch as no fundamental rights of the petitioners have been infringed; that the allegations about the income from the forest lands are not admitted; and by way of submission, it is added, they are irrelevant for the purposes of these petitions. It is stated that the Act was passed with a view to unifying the system of land tax in the whole of the State of Kerala. It is submitted that the validity of the Act has to be determined in the light of Art. 265 of the Constitution and that Arts. 19 and 31 were wholly out of the way. It is denied that the tax imposed was harsh or arbitrary, or has the effect of violating the petitioners' right of holding property; and it was asserted that the allegations in respect of income from the forests are entirely irrelevant, as the tax was not a tax on income, but was an "impost on land". It is equally irrelevant whether the land is productive or not. It is also contended that, in view of the provisions of Art. 31(5) (b) (i) of the Constitution, Art. 31(2) could not be relied upon by the petitioners. The allegation of the petitioners that the Act is a device to confiscate private forests is denied. It is admitted that, except in certain cases, the entire area is unsurveyed and that steps are being taken for surveying those areas. It is also stated that the areas shown in the notices served on the petitioners are based on information available to the Collector of the District; and lastly, it is stated that only notice has been issued calling upon the petitioners to make their representations, if any, to the proposed provisional assessments. The assessments have not yet been made, and, therefore, there is no question of demand of tax being enforced by coercive processes, Finally, it is suggested that the Act has been enacted for the legitimate revenue purposes of the State.