BPCL was “harassing” petrol pump dealer since 1991
Terming it “highly unfortunate” how Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd, a Public Sector Undertaking, has been harassing a petrol pump dealer and her legal heirs since year 1991 by not honouring the dealership agreement and extending litigation against them, the Delhi High Court has slapped a cost of Rs 1Lakh on the PSU while asking the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to bring to its notice that such harassment of citizens is not acceptable.
Justice Valmiki Mehta also noted a strong objection to the conduct of BPCL in trying to argue the matter afresh through Additional Solicitor General Aman Lekhi despite the arguments coming to a conclusion in November.
The high court was hearing a regular First Appeal moved by BPCL against the September 11, 2018 judgement of the trial court which had directed it to not to disturb the possession of the respondent/plaintiff of the petrol pump being run in the name of Airport Service Station opposite Nehru Place Bus Terminal while further directing it to reconstitute the petrol pump dealership in favour of legal heirs of respondent's/plaintiff.
In the instant case, BPCL had originally entered a Dispensing and Pump and Selling License Agreement with Shyam Sunder Gupta. In 1983, a dealership agreement was entered with reconstituted partnership firm of Shyam Sunder Gupta, his wife Nirmal Gupta and G.D. Sehgal, father of the respondent/plaintiff, Promila Kishore.
As per the Agreement, on the death or retirement or permanent incapacity of a partner of the licencee firm, though BPCL could terminate the Agreement at its option but it could also exercise the option of continuing the DPSL Agreement between the surviving or continuing partners of the licencee firm.
On January 21, 1991, Promila made a representation to BPCL that the two partners -- Shyam Sunder Gupta and Nirmal Gupta had retired from the partnership firm and the partnership business was being carried on in her name.
BPCL did nothing on this representation. Thereafter, another representation dated 30.06.2000 was given by Shyam Sunder Gupta and Nirmal Gupta asking BPCL to allow them to retire from the firm and the petrol pump business to be carried on by the sole surviving partner G.D. Sehgal and by inducting the respondent/plaintiff Promila Kishore, in the partnership.
G.D. Sehgal died in year 2002 while Shyam Sunder and Nirmal Gupta also passed away in year 2005.
Instead of drawing out a proper DPSL Agreement in the name of Promila, BPCL appointed her as 'Temporary Dealer' in June, 2003.
She once again wrote to BPCL in June, 2009 for grant of dealership agreement to her reminding it that her request has been pending since 1991 and that as per a policy issued by the PSU in year 2008, the dealership was to be reconstituted in case of death of one of the partners in favour of remaining partners or legal heirs.
The BPCL wrote back saying reconstitution could be done provided NOC is given from legal heirs of Shyam Sunder and Nirmal Gupta.
When the NOC was provided, the PSU came up with the objection that the NOC was not in the prescribed format.
This forced Promila Kishore to file a suit against BPCL which was decided in her favour by the trial court.
Before the High Court
Justice Mehta noted that the trial court decreed the suit in favour of Promila by observing that there is indeed a Policy of BPCL of the year 2008 whereby there takes place reconstitution of the dealership in the name of the legal heirs of the deceased partners and that this aspect is an admitted stand of the appellant/defendant no.1 (as per its written statement).
“The trial court has therefore held that there was no occasion to appoint the respondent/plaintiff only as a temporary dealer i.e. the respondent/plaintiff had to be appointed as a regular dealer by executing the DPSL Agreement with the respondent/ plaintiff. The trial court also has rightly further noted that no communication was ever given by the appellant/defendant no.1 to Sh. Shyam Sunder Gupta and Smt. Nirmal Gupta during their lifetimes that they are not giving the necessary NOCs inasmuch as the case of the respondent/plaintiff was that these were duly given in terms of various letters written to the appellant/defendant no.1…”
Justice Mehta also took note of the trial court’s observation that BPCL is a Public Sector Undertaking and “State” under Article 12 of the Constitution of India and cannot act arbitrarily.
“I do not find any illegality or perversity, whatsoever, in the aforesaid reasoning and conclusions of the trial court, and if at all there is any perversity or illegality, it is in the grossly illegal actions of the appellant/defendant no.1,” said Justice Mehta.
HC criticises renewed efforts to argue matter
Tracing the timeline of the matter, Justice Mehta noted, “This Regular First Appeal came up for admission on 19.11.2018. The appeal was argued almost entirely with respect to all relevant issues in the case and the judgment was to be pronounced in the open court. This Court also prima facie made observations that in the facts of the present case, the appellant/defendant no. 1 has been acting unfairly and harassing the ordinary citizens of this country, and therefore, this Court was inclined to pass serious observations against the appellant/defendant no. 1 and its officers while disposing of the appeal,
“However, instead of taking instructions with respect to whether or not this appeal is pressed, the Ld. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) has now appeared for the first time and has sought to address a few points of arguments before this Court. Only and only because the appellant/defendant no. 1 is a Public Sector Undertaking and is represented by an ASG, in deference I have heard the Ld. ASG, but in my opinion it is an unacceptable practice of a litigant that when after arguments are complete instead of inviting a judgment, an adjournment is taken only for the purpose of taking instructions, but instead thereafter renewed efforts are made to re-argue the matter which would have reached a quietus on 19.11.2018,” said he.
Justice Mehta held that BPCL only raised a technical objection of NOC not being in prescribed format but even its written statement does not say that what would be an illegality which is not complied with and in what prescribed format the same would have been complied with.
“After the death of Shyam Sunder Gupta and his wife Nirmal Gupta, the NOC was duly given by all three legal heirs, and who were sued as defendant nos. 2 to 4 in the suit but they never appeared and were proceeded ex parte i.e. the LRs of Shyam Sunder Gupta and Nirmal Gupta had no objection to the grant of dealership to the respondent/plaintiff. Really, therefore, the present case is a case of the appellant/defendant no.1 wrongly contesting the suit for the sake of it,” concluded Justice Mehta.
BPCL Board of Directors, Ministry told to take note
“It is highly unfortunate that appellant/defendant no. 1 which is a Public Sector Undertaking has been harassing the respondent/plaintiff, since deceased, and thereafter her legal heirs, by not only refusing to grant the dealership agreement to which the respondent/plaintiff was entitled to, and now her legal heir is legally entitled to, and now even in spite of the categorical impugned judgment giving correct reasoning and conclusion, this appeal has been filed.
Further, the fact is that despite taking an adjournment for taking instructions after the appeal was argued, once again the appeal was sought to be argued through a Government Law Officer. Therefore, while dismissing this appeal with costs of Rs. 1,00,000 to be paid by the appellant/defendant no.1 to the contesting legal heir namely Annu Sabharwal/respondent no.1(iii) of the original respondent/plaintiff Promila Kishore,” ordered Justice Mehta.
The court further ordered that, “A copy of this judgment be placed before the Board of Directors of the appellant/defendant no.1 so as to show how the officers of the appellant/defendant no.1 are unnecessarily harassing common citizens of this country for no valid reasons, whatsoever. A copy of this judgment also be sent by the Registry of this Court to the concerned Secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, so that the said Ministry can take proper note and bring to the notice of the appellant/defendant no.1 that harassment of the citizens of this country is unacceptable”.