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History of Administrative Law in India

Prior to the advent of colonial rule, India was governed by its own unique systems of justice and governance, with each community and region having its own set of rules. However, the British colonization of India brought about a more structured and centralized administrative system, complete with laws and administrative bodies. Following India's independence in 1947, the nation established its own constitution in 1950, outlining the workings of the government and incorporating principles of administrative law.

As the government began to assume more responsibilities, such as education and healthcare provision, administrative law in India began to expand. The expansion of administrative law in India was driven by several factors. The judicial system, responsible for legal matters, had its limitations due to its slow and complex nature. As a result, specialized tribunals and authorities were established to address specific issues.

Similarly, the legislative process also had its limitations, as it couldn't detail every rule and procedure, leading to some powers being delegated to administrative authorities. Significant legal cases, such as those of Kesavananda Bharati and Maneka Gandhi, played a pivotal role in shaping India's administrative law. Presently, contemporary issues such as corruption, transparency, and efficiency in government processes pose challenges that need to be addressed by effective laws and regulations to ensure fair and effective governance.

In essence, the evolution of administrative law in India has been a journey from ancient customs through colonial rule to independence and the development of laws that govern the workings of the government. It is a testament to adaptability and change in response to the needs of the people and the nation.

The 20th century witnessed a remarkable expansion of administrative law, marking it as a standout development of the era. This is not to say that administrative law did not exist prior to this period. It has been present in various forms for many years. However, the 20th century brought about a profound shift in the state's role and function. The responsibilities of the government have grown exponentially. The modern state is no longer just a sovereign entity maintaining law and order, but a progressive democratic institution striving to provide social security and welfare for its citizens.

It regulates industrial relations, oversees the production, manufacture, and distribution of essential goods, initiates enterprises, and aims to ensure equality for all, including equal pay for equal work. The state also works towards improving slum conditions, safeguarding public health and morals, providing education for children, and taking all necessary steps to uphold social justice. In essence, the modern state cares for its citizens from birth to death. These advancements have significantly broadened the scope and reach of administrative law.

Administrative law is the branch of law that governs the powers, duties, obligations, and functions of administrative bodies. It is the legal framework within which administrative actions take place. This branch of law, with its societal regulatory power, imposes certain constraints in the form of rules and regulations to ensure individuals can exercise their rights and safeguard the rights of others. Hence, it is often referred to as a regulatory law. As administrative law is uncodified, courts are responsible for enforcing it, making it impossible for the legislature to have complete governance. The court also appoints a group of officers to stay updated with the complexities and innovations of democratic institutions.

There's a wide range of views when it comes to defining administrative law. This is largely due to the significant expansion of administrative processes, making it challenging to formulate a precise definition that encompasses the full spectrum of administrative activities. Let's examine the definitions provided by esteemed legal scholars.

Austin describes administrative law as the law that outlines the goals and methods through which sovereign power should be exercised. According to him, this power can be exercised either directly by the monarch or indirectly by subordinate political superiors who are entrusted with portions of this power.

On the other hand, Holland categorizes administrative law as one of the six divisions of public law, as stated in his renowned book "Introduction to American Administrative Law 1958".

Bernard Schwartz has defined Administrative Law as "the law applicable to those administrative agencies which possess of delegated legislation and ad judicatory authority."

Jennings has defined Administrative Law as "the law relating to the administration. It determines the organization, powers, and duties of administrative authorities."

K.C. Davis has defined administrative law as "Administrative Law is the law concerning the powers and procedures of administrative agencies including specially the law governing judicial review of administrative action."

The Indian Institution of Law has defined Administrative Law as "Administrative Law deals with the structure, powers and functions of organs of administration, the method and procedures followed by them in exercising their powers and functions, the method by which they are controlled and the remedies which are available to a person against them when his rights are infringed by their operation."

Pre colonialism period:
The roots of administrative law in India can be traced back to the ancient times, specifically during the rule of the Mauryas and the Gupta dynasties. These dynasties had a centralized administrative system in place. This was followed by the Mughal era, which also had a similar system of administration.

The primary responsibilities of the kings during these ancient times were threefold - safeguarding the state from foreign invasions, tax collection, and maintaining peace and order within the state. The principle of "Dharma" was adhered to by both kings and administrators, with no exceptions.

This fundamental principle of natural justice and fair play guided the actions of the kings and officers, as the administration could only function based on these principles upheld by Dharma. The concept of Dharma was even broader than the modern notions of "Rule of Law" or "Due Process of Law". However, there was no law in the sense that we understand it today.

Pre independence period:
The advent of the British in India marked the introduction of a new legal system. The formation of the East India Company significantly amplified the powers of the government. The British Parliament introduced numerous acts, legislatures, and statutes aimed at regulating public safety, health, morality, transportation, and labor relations. During the British era, India functioned as a police state.

The roots of many operational and structural elements such as the All-India Services, recruitment processes, training programs, secretariat system, office procedures, budgeting, centralised tendency, revenue, local and police administration can be traced back to this period. This era can be further subdivided into two phases:

The rule of the East India Company until 1858
The Crown rule from 1858-1947
The practice of issuing administrative licenses was initiated with the State Carriage Act of 1861. The Bombay Port Trust Act of 1879 marked the establishment of the first public corporation. The Northern India Canal and Drainage Act of 1873 and the Opium Act of 1878 recognized delegated legislation as a valid power of the executive. Many statutes included provisions related to permits and licenses, as well as the resolution of disputes by executive authorities and tribunals.

During World War II, executive powers were significantly increased under the Defense of India Act of 1939, which granted extensive powers over individual property with minimal judicial oversight. In addition to this, the government issued numerous orders and ordinances covering various matters through administrative instructions. The East India Company, a foreign ruling power, is considered the forerunner of the current legal administrative structure. The company focused on fortifying its own domain, with its administrative machinery primarily designed to serve this purpose.

The civil services were referred to as the "steel frame", indicating a lack of emphasis on social welfare. The administration of the East India Company was rigid, inflexible, and unrealistic, leading to its collapse when faced with the significant challenge of the 1857 war. The British government's administration prioritized loyalty to the government, often at the expense of the Indian people. Despite this, several improvements and developments in administrative law took place during this period, which were later adapted to suit Indian needs after independence.

Post independence period:
The concept of social welfare was swiftly embraced following independence, particularly after the constitution was adopted. The preamble of the constitution proclaims India as a socialist, secular, and democratic republic committed to providing justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity to all its citizens.

Furthermore, children under the age of 14 are now entitled to free and compulsory education. Various social legislation, such as the Industrial Disputes Act 1948, the Factories Act 1948, the Employees' State Insurance Act 1948, and the Minimum Wage Act 1948, have been enacted since then.

The Indian Constitution specifically embodies the philosophy of a welfare state. It includes provisions to ensure social, economic, and political justice, as well as equality of status and opportunity for all citizens. It stipulates that societal material resources should be distributed in a way that best serves the common good and that the operation of the economic system should not lead to wealth and means of production being concentrated among a few.

To implement these objectives, the state has the power to impose reasonable restrictions on the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. To achieve these goals, Parliament has enacted several Acts, such as the Industrial (Development and Regulation) Act (1951), the Requisitioning and Acquisition of Immovable Property Act (1952), the Essential Commodities Act (1955), the Companies Act (1956), the Maternity Benefit Act (1961), the Payment of Bonus Act (1965), the Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act (1969), the Equal Remuneration Act (1976), the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act (1976), and the Beedi Workers' Welfare Fund Act (1976). A study of Supreme Court cases from 1953 to 1955 by Markose revealed that about half of the cases pertained to administrative law. Out of 250 reported cases, 119 fell under the category of administrative law. Of the 275 pages of Supreme Court judgments, 229 were related to administrative law. The prevalence of administrative law has presumably increased significantly since then.

Important cases:
  1. Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973):
    This case is a milestone in the history of Indian constitutional law, introducing the "basic structure doctrine." It affirmed that the Indian Parliament, despite its power to amend the Constitution, cannot change its fundamental framework. This doctrine has profound implications for the boundaries of legislative and administrative powers.
  2. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978):
    This case saw the Supreme Court broaden the interpretation of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court ruled that any law must be fair and reasonable, leading to the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.
  3. A. K. Kraipak v. Union of India (1969):
    This case was instrumental in delineating the extent of administrative discretion, establishing that administrative decisions should be based on relevant considerations and not be arbitrary.
  4. R. D. Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India (1979):
    This case underscored the principles of natural justice, especially the right to a fair hearing, in administrative decision-making processes. It highlighted that fairness and reasonableness are indispensable in administrative actions.
  5. State of West Bengal v. B. K. Mondal (1962):
    This case stressed the necessity for administrative decisions to be reasoned, setting a precedent that administrative authorities must provide reasons for their decisions, especially when they negatively impact individuals.
  6. Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985):
    This case, which dealt with the eviction of pavement dwellers, underscored the state's responsibility to provide shelter and livelihood to society's marginalized sections. It broadened Article 21's scope to encompass socio-economic rights.
  7. Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997):
    This case tackled workplace sexual harassment and established guidelines to safeguard women's dignity and rights at work. It emphasized the state's duty to ensure safe working conditions.
  8. LIC of India v. Consumer Education and Research Centre (1995):
    This case laid down that administrative decisions must be fair, just, and reasonable, introducing the "fairness doctrine" in administrative law.

Reason for the growth of administrative law in India
Evolving Role of a State
The evolution of administrative law is largely due to the state's changing role. Previously, the state focused on maintaining law and order and providing social welfare. However, it has since adopted a more proactive policy, expanding its functions to include education, healthcare, and other services.

Inadequacy of the Judicial System
The growth of administrative law is also attributed to the shortcomings of the judicial system. The system was slow, expensive, complex, and formalistic, leading to delays in resolving even important matters. To address complex issues that couldn't be solved by interpreting statutes alone, industrial tribunals and labor courts were established.

Limitations of the Legislative Process
The legislative process was also found to be inadequate as it lacked the time and technique to handle all details. This led to the delegation of some powers to administrative authorities.

Opportunities for Experimentation in Administrative Procedures
Administrative law allows for experimentation in the administrative process. Unlike legislation, rules can be made, tested, and, if found defective, altered or modified quickly.

Emphasis on Pragmatism over Technicalities
Administrative law also avoids technicalities. Administrative tribunals are not bound by rules of evidence and procedure, allowing them to take a practical approach to complex problems.

Preventive Measures
Administrative authorities can take preventive measures, which can be more effective than punishing a person for a breach of law. For instance, inspecting and grading meat can be more beneficial than allowing consumers to sue sellers after injury.

Effective Enforcement
Lastly, administrative authorities can enforce preventive measures effectively. They possess authorities such as the ability to suspend, revoke, and cancel licenses, as well as the power to destroy contaminated items, which are typically not accessible through conventional legal courts.

Contemporary issues:
India, ranked 80th in the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, grapples with corruption across all government levels, impacting the economy, judiciary, and hindering growth. Factors contributing to corruption include excessive regulations, complex licensing and tax systems, opaque bureaucracy, and a lack of transparency in government sectors. Elected representatives often prioritize personal gains over public welfare. Many MPs and MLAs with criminal records continue to hold office.

High-ranking ministers involved in major scams such as the coal allotment scam and the 2G spectrum scam are responsible for creating public welfare laws. The judiciary, despite constitutional guarantees of independence, is plagued by corruption. A shortage of judges leads to delayed justice, with courts focusing on urgent matters and neglecting regular cases.

Challenges in Public Contracting:
In response to public demand, the government contracts with private organizations to provide goods and services. However, these are often more expensive and less affordable.

Government departments have websites providing information to citizens. However, these sites are not regularly updated and can crash with increased user traffic. Government apps can access users' personal data without consent, raising privacy concerns.

Social Equity and Inclusion:
Public organizations need more representation from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. For instance, departments in minority areas should include a proportionate number of minority members.

Bureaucratic Indifference:
The widening gap between set goals and actual achievements in planning and program implementation characterizes the era of bureaucratic indifference in India. Despite the control of various committees and commissions and provisions for fulfilling planning and introduction, the issue of bureaucratic indifference seems to persist in various administrative units.

As the activities and powers of the government and administrative authorities have expanded, there is now an increased need for the enforcement of the rule of law and judicial oversight over these powers. This ensures that citizens can freely enjoy the liberties guaranteed to them by the Constitution. Consequently, several statutes now include provisions for rights of appeal, revision, etc., and extraordinary remedies are available under Articles 32, 136, 226, and 227 of the Indian Constitution.

The concept of judicial review is considered a fundamental element of our constitution's "basic structure". Decisions made by administrative authorities can be overturned if they are found to be in bad faith, outside the scope of the Act, or in violation of the constitution. If the rules, regulations, or orders enacted by these authorities exceed their powers, they can be declared ultra vires, unconstitutional, illegal, and null and void.

India has undergone a complete transformation in its administrative law. Initially, the administrative law largely overlooked socio-economic matters, but it gradually shifted to moderately addressing these issues and eventually expanded to encompass all aspects related to citizens' rights and duties as outlined in the Constitution.

This evolution in administration and administrative law mirrors the state's transition from a minimalist role to a parens patriae role, acting as a guardian for its citizens. Today's administrative law, with its numerous benefits, ensures the protection of people's rights and helps the state fulfilling its obligations towards creating an inclusive society.

  1. Administrative Law and Its Development in India - The Law Express
  2. Administrative Law in India: A Brief History (
  3. A complete overview of Administrative Law | Law column
  4. Emerging Challenges to Indian Administration - Legal Desire Media and Insights
  5. Reasons for the Growth of Administrative Law (
  7. Historical Development of Administrative Law in India (
  8. C.K. Taqwani, (2021) "Lectures on Administrative Law", EBC Explorer (P.14-17)
  9. Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, 4 SCC 225; AIR 1973 SC 1461
  10. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597; (1978) 1 SCC 248
  11. A. K. Kraipak v. Union of India AIR1970SC150
  12. R. D. Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India 1979 AIR 1628
  13. State of West Bengal v. B. K. Mondal AIR 1962 SC 779, 1962 SCR SUPL. (1) 876
  14. Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation 1985 SCC (3) 545
  15. Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan AIR 1997 SC 3011
  16. LIC of India v. Consumer Education and Research Centre AIR 1811, 1995 SCC (5) 482

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