|2022 SCC ONLINE SC 317
|DATE OF JUDGMENT
|15th March 2022
|Supreme Court of India
|B.S. Murthy and others
|A. Ravinder Singh and others
|Uday U. Lalit Hemant Gupta S. Ravindra Bhat, JJ.
The case of B.S. Murthy and Others Vs. A. Ravinder Singh and Others, involves seniority of Inspectors of Central Excise, as between direct recruits and promotees. The promotee inspectors are aggrieved and are appellants before the Apex Court. Multiple proceedings and applications filed in the Supreme Court of India. The case was initially filed as a Civil Appeal. The judgment was pronounced on March 15, 2022, and there were subsequent miscellaneous applications and contempt petitions related to the case. The major issue in this case is to determine whether the High Court erred in setting aside the order of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT)? The appellants are aggrieved by a common judgment and order of the erstwhile unified High Court of Andhra Pradesh in several writ petitions. The High Court allowed those writ petitions and set aside the order of the CAT in a batch of ten original applications. The CAT’s order had allowed those applications and directed proper fixation of inter se seniority of Inspectors of Central Excise, as between direct recruits and promotees.
FACTS OF THE CASE
- The appellants are dissatisfied with a collective judgment from the former unified High Court of Andhra Pradesh in numerous writ petitions.
- The High Court granted these writ petitions, overturning the Central Administrative Tribunal’s (CAT) order dated 29.12.2003 in ten original applications. The CAT’s order had approved these applications and mandated the proper determination of seniority among Inspectors of Central Excise, specifically between Direct Recruits and Promotees.
- The rules, however, lacked provisions for establishing the seniority order between Direct Recruit Inspectors (DRIs) and Promotee Inspectors (PRIs). Seniority lists were formulated based on executive instructions issued by the Government of India over time. The CAT instructed the department to revise seniority following the guidelines of the 1986 Office Memo (OM) after notifying the affected parties.
- The CAT, in a subsequent order, questioned the rationale of its prior decision and referred the case to a Full Bench to determine whether the 1986 OM applied prospectively or retrospectively. The Full Bench clarified that the 1986 OM only had a prospective effect from1986.
- With these findings, the 1993 final list was invalidated, and the department was instructed to create a new list. The Direct Recruit Inspectors (DRIs) argued that Promotee Inspectors (PRIs) exceeded the 25% quota, asserting that the litigation was unnecessarily prolonged. They contended that there were no excess promotions from 1983 to 1991, with 25% of actual yearly vacancies during that period designated for promotees.
- The seniority of the five applicants initially determined as per the order, had to be reinstated and not altered. Consequently, the CAT approved the applications and nullified the seniority list prepared as of 01.01.2002.
- The question which was raised is whether the 1986 Office Memo should be considered prospective or retrospective?
- The issue is whether the department’s understanding of the quota rule is justified.
- The key query is to determine the appellant’s right to contest their seniority position as indicated in the challenged seniority list.
- The matter in question is to check the promotions carried out during the ban on direct recruitment were in accordance with regular procedures.
- Whether the High Court made an error in nullifying the Central Administrative Tribunal’s order.
CONTENTIONS OF APPEALENT
- It is urged on behalf of the PRIs by their counsel, that the High Court failed to consider that the Committee, formed in accordance with the CAT’s decision, recommended using the register of Inspectors, spanning from 1884 to 1996, to determine seniority based on the number of vacancies year by year. This approach aligns with the 1986 Office Memo (OM) and emphasizes the importance of the vacancy register.
- The Committee Chairperson, in a second report, clarified that the Special Cell’s formula for determining the PRI quota was too restrictive. Instead, they proposed considering indents submitted to the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) along with appointments made on compassionate grounds.
- It is argued that the seniority list of January 2002 disregarded previous CAT directives that had already been finalized. The retrospective application of the 1986 OM to pre-1986 PRIs and ad-hoc PRIs was applied without considering that most of these PRIs were promoted within the allocated quota under the rules.
- The appellants further asserted that the department’s interpretation of the quota rule is invalid. For seniority calculation purposes, the PRI quota was considered to be one-third of the total vacancies filled by direct recruitment, contrary to the rules which independently specify a quota of 25% of the total vacancies.
- The submission emphasized that this interpretation, coupled with the overlooking of the ban on direct recruitment, led the department to neglect CAT’s previous orders and the commissioner’s factual report. The report clearly stated that the vacancy register did not indicate any under-reporting of direct recruit vacancies during the relevant period.
CONTENTIONS OF REPONDENT
- It was urged on behalf of the DRIs, who succeeded before the High Court, that the judgment does not call for interference and they emphasized that the matter of seniority was thoroughly examined, and the department correctly interpreted previous rulings while formulating the seniority list.
- The argument presented is that the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) overlooked this crucial aspect. The CAT held that it was not permissible for Promotee Inspectors (PRIs) to later assert that they should have been placed in seniority above DRIs from 1991 and 1992. According to the appellants, this contention by PRIs is barred by the principle of estoppel.
- The respondents contend that in the process of determining seniority, variations in promotion dates within the promotee cadre or joining dates in the DRI cadre may occur. However, they argue that such variations should not warrant a complete upheaval of the seniority list. Efforts should be made to rectify any errors or omissions to the extent possible.
- The argument put forth is that Office Memos (OMs) should be understood as written, with no room for additional interpretation contrary to their intended meaning. The quotas between DRIs and PRIs are explicitly set at 75% and 25%, and the PRI quota is directly linked to the indents placed for direct recruitment with the Staff Selection Board (SSB). As a result, the quota is unrelated to permanent strength or vacancy positions.
The Supreme Court invalidated the High Court’s judgment, emphasizing that it is crucial to consider the context in which the High Court determined that Promotee Inspectors (PRIs) exceeded their quota. The High Court’s decision aimed to address situations where direct recruit vacancies were under-reported to the public service commission (in this case, the SSC), giving an unfair advantage to promotees who could get ahead of later-appointed direct recruits. The consequence of deeming promotions as ad-hoc was meant to be applied in cases of underreported vacancies.
According to the Supreme Court, the correct approach, as undertaken by the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), should have been to assess the number of regular vacancies in relation to the quotas, specifically considering the vacancy register. The Supreme Court concluded that the promotions of the PRIs should be considered regular. The court held that the High Court’s oversight of these aspects was a clear error, as the records indicated that the ban on direct recruitment did not apply to vacancies intended to be filled through promotions in accordance with the Recruitment Rules.
There is no evidence in the records to support claims of concealment or underreporting of direct recruit vacancies from the permanent cadre strength in any given year, favoring promotees. Consequently, the respondents’ actions lack justification. The department erroneously assumed excess promotions by inaccurately assessing the promotee quota based on the indents placed for direct recruitment. Considering this, the High Court made an error in overturning the Central Administrative Tribunal’s (CAT) order, and the Supreme Court now reinstates the CAT’s decision. The Apex Court concludes that there were no surplus promotions between 1983 and 1991. Accordingly, the contested judgment is revoked, the appeals by the Promotee Inspectors (PRIs) are granted, and their interests and rights are reinstated.
The department is instructed by the court to take appropriate action, specifically the preparation and publication of a final seniority list in accordance with the current case findings. This directive must be fulfilled within three months. Consequently, the writ petition is resolved as per the court’s directions.
This case involved the matter of establishing seniority between direct recruits and promotees for the position of Inspector of Central Excise, the Supreme Court thus rendered a significant judgment. The Court underscored the principle that individuals from either channel, whether direct recruits or promotees, cannot assert seniority dating back to a time before their actual appointment. This key determination by the Court emerged through a thorough analysis of various office memorandums and responses under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The Supreme Court’s directive, based on its comprehensive examination of relevant documents, mandates the concerned department to formulate a conclusive seniority list. The Court’s decision emphasizes the importance of aligning seniority claims with the actual date of appointment, precluding any attempt to assert seniority from a date preceding the individual’s official entry into the role. This legal pronouncement ensures fairness and procedural adherence in determining the seniority of inspectors within the Central Excise framework.
- SCC Online
This Article is written by Soumya Saisa Das student of Amity Law School, Noida (ALSN); Intern at Legal Vidhiya.
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