1. The petitioner herein is the judgement - debtor in O. S. 558 of 1973, Principal District Munsif's Court, Narsapur. She filed a petition under S.4 (2) (a) of the A. P. Agricultural Indebtedness (Relief) Act, (Act No. 7 of 1977) referred to in this judgment as the Act contending that she is a small farmer and that she in entitled to a declaration that the decree debt shall be deemed to be wholly discharged. She claimed that she was possessed of 1 acre out of 4 acres. 95 cents in R. S. No. 239 and she had no other income. This application was opposed on the ground that the petitioner's husband was doing business in rice and was earning more than Rs. 8000/- per annum and hence the petitioner is not a small farmer within the meaning of Act 7 of 1977. The learned District Muncie after considering the evidence adduced in the case held that the petitioner's husband was getting an annual income of RS. 5000/- or RS. 6000/-. He therefore held that though the petitioner was entitled only to 1 acre of land, the application has to be rejected as her husband's income was more than RS. 5000/-. In the result he dismissed the petition with costs.
2. The petitioner in the lower Court filed the present revision-petition challenging the correctness of the said order. When it came before Divan Reedy. J. he directed this revision-petition to be posted before a Full Bench as he was of the view that the decision of a Division Bench of this Court in S. Laxamana Rao .DC Papaya Raja (1980) 1 APPLE 228; (AIR 1980 And PRA 191) is not correct.
3. Section 4 of the Act provides that every debt, including interest, if any, owing to any creditor by an agricultural labourer a rural artisan or a small farmer shall be deemed to be wholly discharged. The Petitioner claims that she is a 'small farmer' within the meaning of S.3 (t), which is as follows;
'3.(t) 'small farmer' means a person whose principal means of livelihood is income derived from agricultural land and who cultivates as a tenant or sharecropper or mortgagee with possession, agricultural land which does not exceed in extent;-
(i) in the case of persons other than the members of the Scheduled Tribes, one hectare, if it is wet, or two hectares. if it is dry;
(ii) in the case of the members of the Scheduled Tribes, two hectares, if it is wet, or four hectares, if it is dry but does not include any person whose annual household income, other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees in any two years within three years immediately preceding the commencement of this Act.
Explanation;- For the purposes of computing the extent of land under this clause, one hectare of wet land shall be deemed to be equal to two hectares of dry land;''
The petition does not belong to any Scheduled Tribe. Hence her case is covered by Sec. 3 (t) (I). Her case is that as the agricultural land which she holds, does not exceed one hectare ofd wet land she is a small farmer within the meaning of Sec. 3 (t) (I). The learned District Munsif however held that she cannot be considered to be a small farmer in view of the last part of the definition viz, ' but does not include any person whose annual household income, other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees in any two years within three years immediately preceding commencement of this Act.''
The expression annual household income is defined in Sec. 3 (d) as meaning the aggregate of the annual income from all sources of all the members of a family. 'Family' is defined under Sec. 3 (1), in relation to a person, as meaning the individual, the wife or husband, as the case may be, of such individual and their unmarried minor children. 'Person' is defined in Sec. 3 (p). as meaning an individual or a family. On a reading of Sec. 3 (d), 3 (1) and 3 (p) along with the last part of Sec. 3 (t) of the Act, it would follow that if the annual income from all sources of all the members of the family other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees in any two years within three years immediately preceding the commencement of this Act. the debtor cannot be considered to be a 'small farmer' within the meaning of the Act. In this case, it has been found that one of the members of the family viz., the husband, gets an annual income of more than Rs. 5000/- from the rice business. The learned District Munsif was therefore right in holding that the petitioner is not a small farmer.
4. It is however argued by the learned counsel for the petitioner that the last portion of Sec. 3 (t) viz., ' but does not include any person whose annual household income, other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees'............ qualifies only the words immediately preceding this clause in S. 3 (t) (ii) i.e. ,''in the case of the members of the Scheduled Tribes, two hectares, if it is dry''. In other words, this clause is in the nature of a provisionally to S. 3 (t?) (ii) and not to Sec. 3 (t) (I). In the case of members other than Scheduled Tribes, the only consideration that has to be taken into account is whether the person possesses agricultural land which does not exceed one hectare, if it is wet, or two hectares, if it is dry. The same contention was accepted by a Division Bench of this court in S. Laxmana Rao v. D. C. Papaiahraju (1980) I APLJ 228; (AIR 1980 Andh Pra 191). We are however unable to agree that the clause. ' but does not include any person whose annual household income. other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees in any two years within three years immediately preceding the commencement of the Act, occurring in the last portion of S. 3 (t)'' qualifies only S. 3 (t) (ii) and not 3 (t) (I). It is true that in the official version of the Act printed in the Gazette, this clause occurs immediately after the words 'in the case of the members of the Scheduled Tribes , two hectares, if it is dry'' Occurring in S. 3 (t) (ii) and therefore, on a superficial consideration, it would appear that these words qualify only the words immediately preceding them in Sec. 3 (t) (ii). On a closer examination, however, we consider that these words qualify not only S. 3 (t) (ii) but also S. 3 (t) (I). Otherwise, this would lead to an absurd result placing the Scheduled Tribes in a much worse position than other debtors. Whereas debtors other than Scheduled Tribes would be small farmers even if their annual household income other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees, a debtor who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe, would not be a small farmer if his annual household income other than from agriculture exceeds one thousand and two hundred rupees. This could not have been the intention of the Legislature. The Act, as its preamble states, was enacted to provide relief from indebtedness to agricultural labourers. rural artisans and small farmers in the State of Andhra Pradesh. In the statement of objects and reasons, it is stated as follows;-
' The State government have been viewing great concern the exploitation of weaker sections of the community by unscrupulous money lenders and landlords. The existing laws on the subject of ''debt relief'' had to a certain extent saved from exploitation, such communities which are placed in economically disadvantageous position. As the feeling in the public was growing that these laws are not enough the Prime Minister in announcing 20-Point Economic Programme included ''plan for liquidation of rural indebtedness, legislation for moratorium on recovery of debts, from landless labourers, small farmers and artisans'' to be one of the most important points thereof. As a first step to implement the above plan, the Andhra Pradesh Indebtedness Agriculturists, Landless Labourers and Artisans (Temporary Relief) Act 1976, was enacted so as to bar the institution of suits for the recovery of debts, the making of application for execution of decrees for payment of money passed in a suit for recovery of a debt and the institution of a suit and making an application for eviction of a tenant on the ground of non-payment of debt against any agriculturist, landless labourer or artisan in any civil or revenue Court before the expiry of a period of one year from the date of commencement of the said Act which period has been subsequently extended to two years. In furtherance of the above plan, the Government decided to give a more substantial and permanent relief by liquidating the indebtedness of the agricultural labourers. rural artisans, and small farmers in the State. As the State Legislature was not then in session and it was decided to give effect to the above decision immediately, the Andhra Pradesh Agricultural Indebtedness (Relief) Ordinance 1976, was promulgated by the Government on the 29th December 1976.''
It is therefore clear that the main object of the Act is to give relief to weaker sections of the community from unscrupulous moneylenders and landlords. This is in accordance with the principles laid down in Art. 46 of the Constitution which directs the State to promote with special care, the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. If the interpretation sought to be placed upon the last portion of S. 3 (t) (ii) by the petitioner is to be accepted, it would place the weakest of the weaker sections viz., Scheduled Tribes in a much worse position than other weaker sections of the community. This in our view, could not have been intended by the Legislature. It is no doubt true as pointed out by the learned counsel for the petitioner that this part of the section appears as part of S. 3 (t) (ii) and does not find a place in a separate paragraph and there is no comma also after the words 'dry' in Sec. 3 (t) (ii). But it is a well accepted proposition of law that an interpretation which would lead to an absurdity should be avoided. (Vide Max-well on the Interpretation of Statutes, 12th Edition, page 210).
5. It was pointed out to us that in the Ordinance which preceded this Act, the last part of S. 3 (t) occurs as a separate paragraph after S. 3 (t) (I) and (ii) which would clearly indicate that it governs not only S. 3 (t) (ii) but also S. 3 (t) (ii). It was submitted that by making it a part of S. 3 (t) (ii) in the enactment, there was a deliberate departure from the Ordinance as it was intended that it should govern only section 3 (t) (ii). We are not inclined to agree with this submission. We find there was practically no change in the contents of the Ordinance and the Act. We are inclined to take the view that by mistake in printing the portion at the end of S. 3 (t) (ii) was included as part of S. 3 (t) (ii) instead of having a separate paragraph. A similar argument was advanced before this Court in Y. Koteswara Rao v. M. Suryanarayana. (1978) 2 Andh WR 355: (AIR 1979 NOC 7) : and was rejected. It was pointed out that the interpretation would result in an anomaly as a person other than a member of the Scheduled Tribe will be a small farmer if he does not have one hectare of wet land but gets an annual household income of even Rs. 50,000/- other than from agriculture, but a member of the Scheduled Tribe getting an annual household income of just Rs. 1300 will not be a small farmer even if he does not have more than one hectare of wet land even though cl. (Ii) of S. 3 (I) permits him to possess up to two hectares of wet land. It was pointed out that in such a case, a poor tribal will be denied the benefit under the enactment, while a rich non-tribal can get the benefit if only he is not possessed of more than one hectare of wet land or two hectares of dry land. We are in agreement with the reasoning and conclusion of the learned Judge in the above decision. In S. Laxamana Rao v. D. C. Papaiahraju (1980) 1 APLJ 228: (AIR 1980 Andh Pra 191) dealing with this submission, it was observed that the holding qualification mentioned in the case of debtors other than Scheduled Tribes was very much lower as compared to Scheduled Tribes. It is one hectare of wet land or two hectares of dry land in the former case and two hectares of wet land four hectares of dry land in the latter (S. Ts.) This difference in treatment, would clearly show that the intention of the Act was to deal with non-scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Tribes on two different and distinct bases. It was pointed out that by confining the last portion of the section to cases covered only in Sec. 3 (t) (ii) as Scheduled Tribes, the benefits of the Act would be available to much larger rural debtors than it would otherwise be possible and would help to wipe out more tears from more eyes...... It was further stated that the interpretation given by the Division Bench promoting the object of the Act which would wipe out rural indebtedness and the other alternative would restrict the benefits of the Act to a small segment of rural debtors. It was also stated that the Act had put a higher holding qualification in the case of Scheduled Tribes; and that might also have been an inducement for the legislature to limit Clause (ii) by the household income disability. Any other interpretation would place the members of the Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes at a disadvantageous position compared to the members of the Scheduled Tribes and this would be contrary to Article 14 of the Constitution. WE are unable to see how this interpretation violates Art. 14. Scheduled Tribes form a distinct class by themselves and we can take judicial notice of the fact that Scheduled Tribes are under greater economic disability than other weaker sections of the community and that they are illiterate and live in hills forests, and are being exploited to a large extent by moneylenders and landlords. Therefore when their holding limit is placed at twice the level of the other weaker sections, it cannot be said that there is any violation of Article 14 of the Constitution. On the other hand, if the interpretation placed by this Court in Lakshmana Rao v. Papaiahraju, (1980) 1 APLJ 228 : (AIR 1980 Andh Pra 191) were accepted, all debtors other than the Scheduled Tribes, would be entitled to the benefits of the Act. Whatever may be their annual household income, but the Scheduled Tribes are denied such benefit if their annual household income exceeds Rs. 1200/-. This would be a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, and any interpretation which results in any such violation, has to be avoided.
6. For all the above reasons, we disagree with the decision of this Court in S. Laxmana Rao v. D. C. Papaiahraju, (1980) 1 APLJ 228 (AIR 1980 Andh Pra 191) on this aspect viz., that the last part of Section 3 (t) (ii) governs only the Scheduled Tribes referred to in Sec. 3 (t) (ii). We are of the view that it is in the nature of a proviso both to Section 3 (t) (i) and (ii). In this view, it follows that the revision petition has to be dismissed.
7. The learned counsel Sri Srikrishna challenges the finding of the learned District Munsif, that the Petitioner's husband received an income of Rs. 1200 per year during the relevant years. This is a question of fact and there is no error of jurisdiction involved justifying interference in the revision. The learned District Munsif has considered the evidence adduced and it cannot be said that the finding is based on no evidence.
8. The Revision petition is dismissed. No costs.
9. Revision dismissed.