2 Aug 2023 7:30 AM GMT
The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday directed the Chief Postmaster General to settle a claim of Rs 6, 99,500 along with interest, in favour of a martyr's wife who had invested the amount in her local Burnpur Post Office’s MIS and Fixed deposit scheme, which was subsequently misappropriated by an authorised agent. A single-judge bench of Justice Shekhar B. Saraf held:Based on the...
The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday directed the Chief Postmaster General to settle a claim of Rs 6, 99,500 along with interest, in favour of a martyr's wife who had invested the amount in her local Burnpur Post Office’s MIS and Fixed deposit scheme, which was subsequently misappropriated by an authorised agent.
A single-judge bench of Justice Shekhar B. Saraf held:
Based on the unfortunate events that led to this writ petition, this Court cannot help but conclude that the submissions made by the respondents are nothing but an attempt to shrug off their legal and ethical responsibility to compensate the petitioners for the loss suffered by them on account of the fraud perpetrated by Sri Routh, the authorised SAS agent, acting in nexus with the concerned officials of the post office. This Court, in the strongest possible terms, condemns the actions of Sri Routh, and other officials from the post office who were involved in the entire scheme of fraud in the instant case. This Court, also expresses its regret at the unnecessary and undue suffering caused to the petitioners for no fault of their own. Accordingly, this Court holds the respondents liable for the actions of Sri Routh, and the concerned officials of the Burnpur Post Office.
In view of the aforesaid discussion, this Court directs the respondent no. 2 being the Chief Postmaster General to settle the claim of the petitioner to the tune of INR 6,99,500/- (Six lakhs ninety nine thousand five hundred only) along with interest at the rate of 9% per annum applicable from the date of deposit, till the date of actual payment. Such payment is to be made within four weeks from the date of this order.”
Facts of the case
The petitioners herein, included the wife/legal heir of ‘Shaheed’ Ashok Kumar Chatterjee, who was an Overseer in the Border Road Organisation, and had succumbed to his injuries caused by an IED blast during a terrorist attack in 2003.
Resultantly, the petitioners had received Rs 13,64,405 as a Death benefit/compensation, out of which they invested Rs 7 lakh in their local Burnpur Post Office’s MIS and Fixed Deposit Scheme, with one Soumen Routh, an Authorised Postal Agent under Burnpur Market Sub-Post office. Such a payment included a cheque of Rs 4,99,500 drawn up in favour of the agent, and handed over to him.
The petitioners were subsequently given an MIS Passbook, which reflected their investment of Rs 4,99,500, and they accordingly began drawing a monthly interest, till June 2012.
It was admitted that in June 2012, the agent Soumen Routh took their passbook on the pretext of computerising their account, but never returned with the same, as it was recovered from the police.
Consequently the petitioners submitted that the post office refused to give them an MIS payment from July 2012 onwards, telling them that their accounts and passbook were not genuine, and that the petitioners request for the refund of Rs 4,99,500 was not responded to eother.
It was highlighted, that when the petitioners enquired about their balance 2 lakhs, given for fixed deposit, they were told that the passbook issued to them was not genuine. Subsequently, the petitioners admitted to finding out that a Savings account in their name and without their knowledge, had been opened in Burnpur sub-Post Office, through which transactions had been made.
Upon enquiries, it was reportedly found that the postal cheque which was handed over to the agent for the purpose of making a fixed deposit for the petitioners, had been encashed on the very same day, and corresponding amount had been withdrawn in cash, as well.
It was argued that upon the petitioners highlighting the fraud that had occurred with them, as well as the arrest of and criminal complaints pending against Soumen Routh- the post-offices authorised agent, the post office refused to take any responsibility.
It was argued by the Petitioners that serious fraud had been committed by an authorised agent of the respondents, who were not “vigilant” enough to monitor their actions.
The petitioners contended that Soumen Routh was an agent and representative of the respondents, and that not only had the cheque been drawn up in his favour, but the passbook that was issued had been done under the seal and sign of the concerned postmaster, who had been subsequently arrested as well, making it the post office’s responsibility to make good the loss suffered by the petitioners.
The petitioners argued that while the respondent authorities had acknowledged the massive scale of the fraud, they had refused to rake responsibility on the pretext that the entire fraudulent scheme had ben concocted by the ‘delinquent agent’.
The State-respondents on the other hand, argued that the writ petition itself was not maintainable in light of suppression of facts and misleading statements.
It was argued that the account number furnished by the petitioners was “fake” and that the respondents would not take any responsibility for fake accounts.
The respondents argued that the cheque given by the petitioners was incorrectly drawn up in favour of Soumen Routh, since he was not an employee of the postal department, but had been appointed by the State government, making it not the liability of the post office, since “for making investments in post office the investors are required to issue the cheque for the amount of investment drawn invariably in favour of the post office and not in favour of any other person, as is the petitioners’ case.”
Observations of the Court
Upon perusing the arguments of both sides, the Court contemplated on the plight faced by the petitioners at the behest of the unscrupulous actions of agents at the Burnpur post office. It said:
What transpired in this entire matters bewilders me. Trust is the basic foundation on which the relationship between citizenry and the government stands. When a citizen becomes part of the nations’ defence forces, be it manning it or building it, it is not only their devotion for the nation that drives them but also the trust that in case something untoward happens and they have to make the Supreme Sacrifice, their loved ones will be taken care of. That courage needs to be respected and rewarded.
Post office, in many cases, do not only act as the nation’s preferred carrier of words and emotions, but also serve as the guardian of its savings. It is the trust that has been built over decades that citizens place on their local post offices and it is the sacred duty of the postal department to forever and continuously uphold that trust. The breach of that trust, is not just limited to only the person who is affected by that breach, but can also affect the conscious and trust of the citizenry towards the postal system, which is the lifeblood of Indian republic.”
Postal department can be held liable for actions of “authorised agent.”
On the aspect of whether the petitioners conduct in the present case could be categorised as negligent, and whether the postal department could be held liable for the acts of agent Soumen Routh, being an employee of the State government, the Court held:
Sri Routh, although not an employee of the post office, was an agent authorised to act for MIS Schemes and as such, the trust of the petitioners on Sri Rout was not misplaced. It was the duty of the post office and the government to constantly maintain strong vigilance and disciplinary checks to ensure that is agents do not act in a fraudulent manner. The submissions unravelled a blame game wherein the post office tried to shrug off its liability by stating that Sri Rout was appointed by the Government of West Bengal. Sri Routh’s actions were not Sri Routh’s alone and certain officials who were employees of the Burnpur Market SO, who were direct employees of the postal office, were involved in this fraudulent practice too. As a result of the involvement of not only the authorised Agent but also the employees of the Burnpur Market SO, liability of the postal department cannot be denied and petitioners’ claim against the department is maintainable.
There was no reason for the petitioners’ to suspect any wrongdoing when the amount was being received without fail for over a year and a half. As soon as the fraud was discovered, the petitioners informed the local post office and multiple letters were addressed by them in this regard. As soon as the fraud perpetrated by Sri Routh in tandem with certain postal officials came to notice of the petitioners, relevant authorities were intimated in this regard, who failed to act and take action on the petitioners’ claim. Therefore, petitioners claim in the instant writ petition cannot be rejected on the grounds that their conduct was negligent in the instant case.
Writ of Mandamus is maintainable against postal authorities.
Finally, on the issue of whether a writ of mandamus could be issued on the respondents directing them to settle the claim of the petitioners, the Court held that the same could be done, and concluded:
“In the instant case, demands for settlement of claim were first made to postal authorities and having received no relief, the petitioners approached this Court for issuance of appropriate orders. It cannot be said that the petitioners have not first tried to solve the matter with the Postal Department and have directly approached this Court for issuance of appropriate writs.
To answer the issue at hand, the condition precedent for issuance of a Writ of Mandamus is that whether or not, a legal right has been violated? Based on the material on record, I cannot help but conclude that whenever a citizen deposits or invests, either directly or through an authorised SAS agent, she is legally entitled to receive the benefit of the same. However, for no fault of her own, if a fraud is committed by the said authorised SAS agent and the employees of the department are involved in the same, she cannot be deprived of her rightful claim. If the argument of the respondents in the instant writ petition was to be accepted, great prejudice would have been caused to the petitioner and a wrong precedent would be set by this Court. As has already been discussed, it was not just Sri Routh who was a part of this nexus of fraudulent activities being committed against the petitioners, but involvement of other postal officials has also been established.
Accordingly, prayer for Writ of Mandamus against the postal authorities is also maintainable.”
Case: Sulekha Chatterjee & Anr. Union Of India & Ors
Coram: Justice Shekhar B. Saraf
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (Cal) 205
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