On Tuesday, the Allahabad High Court came down heavily upon state authorities for delaying the payment of post-death dues, namely, Provident Fund, Gratuity and arrears of salary etc. of an employee, for over 24 years.
"Denial for payment of dues of deceased employee for the last more than 24 years is without any basis and patently arbitrary. It shows that adamant and illegal attitude on the part of respondents. Withholding of post death dues for years together is not only illegal and arbitrary but a sin if not an offence since no law has declared so. The officials, who are still in service and are instrumental in such delay causing harassment must however feel afraid of committing such a sin. It is morally and socially obnoxious. It is also against the concept of social and economic justice which is one of the founding pillar of our constitution," Justice Sudhir Agarwal said.
Considerably, the State had admitted that there was a delay in making the payment however, it could not provide any satisfactory explanation for the same. Criticizing this, the court observed that the respondent authorities have the support of entire machinery and various powers of statute however, the common man is hardly equipped to match such might. Therefore, they must be cautious in exercising their discretion and powers.
Justice Agarwal held that the court was responsible to restrain arbitrary inaction or illegal exercise of power on the part of the public functionaries and to rescue the common man.
"Public administration no doubt involves a vast amount of administrative discretion which shields action of administrative authority but where it is found that the exercise of power is capricious or other than bona fide, it is the duty of the Court to take effective steps and rise to occasion otherwise the confidence of the common man would shake," the court said.
The court further held that even while the state functionaries held an authoritative position in terms of powers and privileges, sovereignty in fact vests in the people.
"Every limb of constitutional machinery therefore is obliged to be people oriented. Public authorities acting in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions oppressively are accountable for their behaviour. It is high time that this Court should remind respondents that they are expected to perform in a more responsible and reasonable manner so as not to cause undue and avoidable harassment to the public at large and in particular their ex-employees and their legal heirs like the petitioner…
In our system, the Constitution is supreme, but the real power vest in the people of India. The Constitution has been enacted "for the people, by the people and of the people". A public functionary cannot be permitted to act like a dictator causing harassment to a common man and in particular when the person subject to harassment is his own employee," the court held.
The court relied on the ruling in Lucknow Development Authority v. M.K. Gupta, JT 1993 (6) SC 307, to assert that no law provides protection against malicious or oppressive actions of a public functionary and that apposite action may be taken against them.
"In a democratic system governed by rule of law, the Government does not mean a lax Government. The public servants hold their offices in trust and are expected to perform with due diligence particularly so that their action or inaction may not cause any undue hardship and harassment to a common man. Whenever it comes to the notice of this Court that the Government or its officials have acted with gross negligence and unmindful action causing harassment of a common and helpless man, this Court has never been a silent spectator but always reacted to bring the authorities to law," the court said.
While directing the state to pay outstanding dues payable to legal heirs of deceased employee with interest thereon within a period of two month, the high court also imposed Rs. 20,000/- as costs.
"In a case where the person who has invoked extraordinary equitable jurisdiction satisfying the Court that in the hands of authorities of state instrumentality, individual has suffered grievously, the Court, while deciding the matter, can also pass an order of exemplary cost compensatory in nature so that such authorities may not recur the similar negligence in future," the court said. Reliance was placed on in Gurpal Singh v. State of Punjab & Anr., AIR 2005 SC 2755.
Lastly, the court remarked,
"No Government official should have the liberty of harassing a hopeless employee or his heirs by withholding his/her lawful dues for a long time and thereafter to escape from any liability so as to boast that nobody can touch him even if he commits an ex facie illegal, unjust or arbitrary act. Every authority howsoever high must always keep in mind that nobody is above law."
Case Title: Sant Prasad Seth v. State of UP & Ors.
Case No.: Service Single No. 1150/2001
Quorum: Justice Sudhir Agarwal
Appearance: Advocates Abdul Jabbar, Nitin Khanna and Preeti Srivastava (for Petitioner)