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Bonam Satyavathi Vs. Addala Raghavulu [1993] INSC 399 (5 October 1993)





1. This appeal arises against the judgment and order of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh dated September 18, 1981 passed in Appeal against Order No. 231 of 1977. The decision was rendered by a Full Bench of that High Court on reference.

2. This case has to be viewed on the canvas of the Andhra Pradesh Agricultural Indebtedness (Relief) Act, 1977. The purpose of the Act as reflected from its preamble is to provide relief to agricultural labourers, rural artisans and small farmers in the State of Andhra Pradesh and for matters connected therewith. The provisions of the Act, therefore, have to be interpreted 557 and employed in such a way that it furthers the purposes of the Act. The finding recorded by the High Court on facts is that the mortgagee judgment-debtorrespondent, who is a woman, owns and personally cultivates 2.09 acres of wet land. That her holding computed individually entities her to the protection of the Act is beyond dispute. But her holding was clubbed with that of her minor children by the Subordinate Judge in the first instance holding on that basis that she was not a small farmer. This view was upset by the High Court since it took the view that holding of the individual debtor alone had to be taken into account and the holding of her minor children could not be added to her holding. From this it followed that the judgment-debtor- respondent was a small farmer within the meaning of the Act.

It is to challenge this view that this appeal is at the instance of the decreeholder.

3. The definitions of words and expressions, which play a part in solving this dispute are provided in Section 3 of the Act. The provision begins with the usual words that unless the context otherwise requires words serialized carry the meanings given therein. The word 'debtor' as defined in sub-section (j) means an agricultural labourer, a rural artisan or a small farmer who has borrowed or incurred a debt before the commencement of this Act. According to sub- section (1), family in relation to a person means the individual, the wife or the husband, as the case may be, of such individual and their unmarried minor children. Sub- section (p) says that 'person' means an individual or a family. And lastly, subsection (t) says that 'small farmer' means a person whose principal means of livelihood is income derived from agricultural land and who holds and personally cultivates, or who cultivated as a tenant or sharecropper or mortgagee with possession, agricultural land which does not exceed in extent. The extent of land under this clause is one hectare of wet land which shall be deemed to be equal to two hectares of dry land, as goes the Explanation. Section 4 is the governing section wherefrom flows the relief.

Simply put, it ordains that with effect of, or with the commencement of, the Act, every debt, including interest, if owning to any creditor by an agricultural labourer, rural artisan or a small farmer shall be deemed to be wholly discharged. Sequelly all suits and other proceedings including appeals, revisions, attachments, or execution proceedings, pending at the commencement of the Act against any debtor for the recovery of such debt, including interest if any, stand abated. Undeniably, the objection in the instant case was raised during execution proceedings and the aforesaid provision was applicable.

4. The argument before the High Court was that when under Section 3(p) 'person' means an individual or a family, the individual must always in the context be read interchangeably with his family. Repelling the argument, the High Court ruled that the true meaning of the definition was that if an individual is a debtor or creditor, as the case may be, the expression 'person' must be understood distributively. On this understanding, the High Court went on to decide in favour of the judgment-debtor-respondent, holding that her individual holding alone was reckonable, which would entitle her to the relief since the language employed in Section 3(t) also supported this interpretation.. It was viewed that it could not have been the intention of the framers of the Act that all the members of the family should have their principal means of livelihood or income derived from agriculture. Rather it was held that the individual vocation of each member must be taken into account, as the benefit was meant for debt 558 relief to the agriculturist and not to a non-agriculturist.

If the converse was to hold the field then until and unless all the members of the family earn their livelihood by agriculture, the individual debtor would not be entitled to the benefits of the Act even though he would be earning his livelihood primarily from agriculture. It is on this analysis that the High Court went on to decide in favour of the judgment-debtor. Even though learned counsel for the appellant is at pains to persuade us to give a literal and a strict meaning of the expressions employed in Section 3, we are unable to demolish the reasoning of the High Court whereby relief was granted to the judgment-debtor-respondent to further the purposes of the Act. Rather we agree with the views of the High Court. Additionally, this being a local statute some room must be left with the High Court relating to its interpretative skill, knows as it does the local conditions, warranting such beneficial measures. We thus leave the judgment under appeal uninterfered with. As a result, this appeal fails and is dismissed but without any order as to costs.


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