Husband and wife are not separate entities when the wife is dependent on him. [Surjit Singh v/s. MTNL]

Surjit Singh vs Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd 

Civil Appeal No  5354 of 2002

Before the Supreme Court of India

Decided on: 21 April 2008.

Bench: H. K. Sema and Markandey Katju, JJ.

Author of the Judgement: Justice Markandey Katju.

Counsel for the appellant: Shri R.L. Kapoor

Counsel for the respondent: Shri Amarendra Saran, learned Addl. Solicitor General

Brief Facts:

  • The appellant and his wife are living together at their residence in Rajouri Garden, Delhi. At that residence, there is one telephone line bearing No. 5121187 in the name of appellant Surjit Singh and there is also another telephone line bearing No. 5416493 at the same residence in the name of the appellant’s wife. There is a third telephone line bearing No. 3265301 in the name of the appellant and installed at the business premises of the appellant.
  • It appears that there were arrears of telephone dues in connection with line No. 5416493 which was in the name of the appellant’s wife.
  • For non- payment of the telephone dues in connection with this line, the other two lines in the name of the appellant being 5121187 at his residential premises and line No. 3265301 at his business premises were disconnected.

Procedural history: The appellant filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court which was dismissed by a learned Single Judge by his judgment dated 25.9.2001 and his appeal before the Division Bench of the High Court was also dismissed by the impugned judgment dated 10.1.2002.

Issue: Whether or not, the disconnection done by the Maharashtra Telephone Nigam Pvt. Ltd. was legal in its character?

Arguments of the appellant:

  • In view of Rule 443 the telephone lines in the name of the appellant could not have been disconnected because of non-payment of dues in respect of the line in the name of his wife.
  • In view of the definition of subscriber in Rule 2(pp) of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, the telephone lines in the name of the appellant could not have been disconnected for default in the payment of dues in connection with the telephone line in the name of his wife.

Arguments of the respondent:

  • Relied upon the decision of a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court in Madan Tayal & Pran Kr. Tayal vs. MTNL 1989 (16) DRJ 51, wherein it was held that the telephone line of a subscriber can be disconnected for non-payment of dues of a relative who is living in the same premises.
  • Also relied upon the decision of the Gujarat High Court in Indravadan Pranlal Shah vs. General Manager, Ahmedabad Telephones District Kharpur, Ahmedabad & Anr. AIR 1990 Guj 85, in which it was held that the telephone of the petitioner can be disconnected if there is a failure by the firm in which he is a partner to pay the dues of the telephone line in the name of the firm.

Ratio:

  • The appellant’s wife is a housewife who is living with the appellant at his residential premises at Rajouri Garden, Delhi. In these circumstances, it can be inferred that the payment of the bill of the telephone line in the name of the appellant’s wife was being made by the appellant himself since his wife has no independent source of income and is economically dependent on him.
  • It is true that on a literal interpretation of Rule 443, we would have to accept the contention of learned counsel for the appellant. However, in this case, the literal rule has not to be adopted, because we have also to see the intention of the rule. The intention obviously was that payment of telephone dues should be made promptly, otherwise the telephone department will suffer. Therefore an interpretation which effectuates and furthers the intention of Rule 443, i.e. the telephone bills should be paid in time, should be taken.
  • Though ordinarily the literal rule should be applied while interpreting a statute or statutory rule, but the literal rule is not always the only rule of interpretation of a provision in a statute, and in exceptional cases, the literal rule can be departed from.
  • Further reference was made to the decision of the constitution bench in L. Arora vs. State of Uttar Pradesh and others1964 (6) SCR 784, wherein it was held that “Further, a literal interpretation is not always the only interpretation of a provision in a statute, and the court has to look at the setting in which the words are used and the circumstances in which the law came to be passed to decide whether there is something implicit behind the words actually used which would control the literal meaning of the words used in a provision of the statute. It is permissible to control the wide language used in a statute if that is possible by the setting in which the words are used and the intention of the law-making body which may be apparent from the circumstances in which the particular provision came to be made.”
  • Reference was made to the great Sanskrit grammarian Nagesh Bhatt. In his book ‘Param Laghu Manjusha’, he has said that a word or phrase can have three meanings: “(i) Abhidha i.e. literal meaning; (ii) Lakshana i.e. the indicative or suggestive meaning; (iii) Vyanjana i.e. the figurative meaning.
    • “I live on the Ganges.” This sentence cannot be literally interpreted because no one can live on the surface of the Ganges river. Hence it has to be interpreted to mean “I live on the bank of the Ganga river.”
    • “The sun has set.” Here the real meaning has in fact nothing to do with the sun or its setting, but it really means “light the lamp” or “let us go home” (because the sun has set).

Held:

Both the telephone lines in the name of the appellant, one at his residence and the other at his business premises, can be disconnected for non-payment of the dues in connection with the line in the name of his dependent wife. The word ‘subscriber’ in Rule 2(pp) has to be given a wider meaning, as already stated above. The appeal is dismissed and there is no order as to cost.

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