The assessee, a SPV, was awarded a contract by the NHAI for widening, rehabilitation and maintenance of an existing two lane highway into a four lane one on the Tada-Nellore section of NH-5 on BOT basis. The entire cost of construction of Rs. 714 crore was borne by the assessee. The construction was completed during the FY 2004-05 after which the highway was opened to traffic for use and the assessee started claiming depreciation from AY 2005-06 onwards. The AO rejected the claim on the ground that the assessee had no ownership, leasehold or tenancy rights for the asset in question, i.e., the roads. On appeal, the CIT(A) reversed the AO. On appeal by the department to the Tribunal HELD dismissing the appeal:
Though the NHAI remains legal owner of the site with full powers to hold, dispose of and deal with the site consistent with the provisions of the agreement, the assessee had been granted not merely possession but also right to enjoyment of the site and NHAI was obliged to defend this right and the assessee has the power to exclude others. The very concept of depreciation suggests that the tax benefit on account of depreciation belongs to one who has invested in the capital asset, is utilizing the capital asset and thereby loosing gradually investment cost by wear and tear and would need to replace the same by having lost its value fully over a period of time. The term “owned” as occurring in s. 32 (1) of the Act must be assigned a wider meaning. Anyone in possession of property in his own title exercising such dominion over the property as would enable others being excluded there from and having the right to use and occupy the property and/or to enjoy its usufruct in his own right would be the owner of the buildings, though a formal deed of title may not have been executed and registered (Mysore Minerals 239 ITR 775 (SC), Noida Toll Bridge 213 Taxman 333 etc referred)
Note: The importance of the judgement is also that it is a ready referencer of all the judgements on the point.