The expression “public purpose” is not capable of a precise definition and has not a rigid meaning. It can only be defined by a process of judicial inclusion and exclusion. In other words, the definition of the expression is elastic and takes its colour from the statute in which it occurs, the concept varying with the time and state of society and its needs. He point to be determined in each case is whether the acquisition is in the general interest of the community as distinguished from the private interest of an individual.
Prof. Willis has summarized the present position in the United States on this subject, at pages 817 and 818 of his book, in these words :-
“What is public use? On thus question there have been two view-points. One may be called the older view-point and the other newer view-point. According to the older view-point, in order to have a public use, there must be the use by the public…… According to the newer view- point there is a public use if the thing taken is useful to the public. This makes public use for eminent domain practically synonymous with public purpose for taxation and somewhat like social interest for police power. Under this rule it is not necessary for the benefit to be for the whole community, but it must be for a considerable number.”
“Dr. Ambedkar combated thus view and urged that the expression “public purpose” was not a new concept when the Constitution of India was framed; on the other hand, it had a settled meaning in the past legislative history of his country and it must be presumed that the Constitution used the expression in the same sense in which it had been used in the earlier Acts and in the Government of India Act, 1935, and that it should not be construed in the light of the directive principles laid down in Part IV of the Constitution. He contended that had the constitution makers intended to give this concept a different meaning than it had acquired in the past, they would have clearly given expression to that intention by saying that the expression “public purpose” includes purposes which aim at implementing the directive principles of State policy and that Part V of the Constitution merely contained glittering generalities which had no jurisdiction behind them and should not be taken into consideration in construing the phrase “public purpose”.
In my opinion, the contentions raised by Dr. Ambedkar, though interesting, are not sound because they are based on the assumption that the concept of public purpose is a rigid concept and has a settled meaning. Dr. Ambedkar is right in saying that in the concept of public purpose there is a negative element in that no private interest can be created in the property acquired compulsorily; in other words, property of A cannot be acquired to be given to B for his own private purposes and that there is a positive element in the concept that the property taken must be for public benefit. Both these concepts are present in the acquisition of the zamindari estates. Zamindaries are not being taken for the private benefit of any particular individual or individuals, but are being acquired by the State in the general interests of the community. Property acquired will be vested either in the State or in the body corporate, the gaon samaj, which has to function under the supervision of the State. Tenants, sirdars, asamis etc., are already in possession of the lands in which their status is to be raised to that of bhumidars. Zamindars who are being reduced to the status of bhumidars are also in possession of the lands. There is no question in these circumstances of taking property of A and giving it to B. All that the Act achieves is the equality of the status of the different persons holding lands in the State. It is not correct to say that Government is acquiring the properties for the purpose of carrying on a business or a trade. The moneys received from persons seeking bhumidari status or from the income of zamindari estates will be used for State purposes and for the benefit of the community at large. For the reasons given above I hold that the impugned Act is not void by reason of the circumstances that it does not postulate a public purpose”.
Ref: (1952) 1 SCR 1056