Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation: A Landmark Judgment on Right to Life

Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation: A Landmark Judgment on Right to Life


The case of Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) stands as a landmark judgment in the annals of Indian constitutional law. This Judgment is celebrated for its significant contribution to the interpretation of the right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This case highlighted the judiciary's role in protecting the rights of marginalized communities, particularly the homeless, against state actions that could jeopardize their fundamental rights.


In the early 1980s, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to evict pavement dwellers and slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai. The BMC argued that these dwellers were illegal occupants of public spaces and their removal was essential for the public good, such as reducing traffic congestion and maintaining public health and sanitation. The eviction notice issued by the BMC sparked widespread fear and uncertainty among the city's poorest residents, who depended on these spaces for their livelihood and shelter.

Olga Tellis, a journalist and activist, along with other pavement dwellers, challenged the BMC's eviction order in the Supreme Court of India. The petitioners argued that such eviction violated their fundamental rights, particularly the right to life guaranteed under Article 21, which includes the right to livelihood.

Legal Issues

The primary legal issue in this case was whether the eviction of pavement and slum dwellers, without providing them alternative accommodation, violated their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. The petitioners contended that the right to life includes the right to livelihood, and evicting them would deprive them of their means of earning a living, thus endangering their lives.


The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment delivered in 1985, ruled in favor of the petitioners. The Court ruled that the right to life under Article 21 encompasses the right to livelihood. Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, in delivering the judgment, asserted that no one can survive without the means to live, which includes their livelihood. If the right to livelihood is not considered a component of the constitutional right to life, the simplest method to strip a person of their right to life would be to take away their means of livelihood.

The Court recognized the harsh reality faced by pavement dwellers and slum residents, acknowledging that they did not live on the pavements or in slums out of choice but due to their dire economic circumstances. The judgment emphasized that the state has a duty to respect and protect the lives and livelihoods of its citizens, particularly the underprivileged.

However, the Court also balanced this with the need to maintain public order and health. It allowed the BMC to evict the dwellers but mandated that such evictions could only be carried out after providing alternative sites or accommodation to the displaced persons. This conditional permission aimed to ensure that the basic rights of the pavement dwellers were not trampled upon by the state's actions.

Impact and Significance

The Olga Tellis judgment is a cornerstone in the jurisprudence relating to the right to life and livelihood in India. It expanded the scope of Article 21, asserting that the right to life encompasses not just the physical act of living but also the quality and means of life. This case set a precedent for future cases involving the rights of the urban poor and marginalized communities.

Moreover, the judgment underscored the importance of judicial intervention in upholding fundamental rights against state actions. It affirmed the judiciary's role as a guardian of the Constitution, capable of providing redress to those whose rights are threatened by governmental policies.

The case also had practical implications for urban policy and planning in India. It highlighted the need for inclusive development policies that consider the plight of the urban poor and emphasized the importance of rehabilitation and resettlement in cases of eviction.


Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation remains a seminal case in Indian constitutional law, illustrating the dynamic interpretation of the right to life under Article 21. By acknowledging the intrinsic link between life and livelihood, the Supreme Court of India fortified the legal protections available to some of the most vulnerable sections of society. This case continues to inspire and inform judicial decisions and policy-making concerning the rights and welfare of the urban poor in India.

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