The Bombay High Court recently granted relief to a 69-year-old former employee of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) who was dismissed from service after an internal enquiry into an accident that occurred 17 years ago that resulted in the death of 33 people.
Justice RV Ghuge was hearing a writ petition filed by Ratnakar Surale against a judgement of the Labour Court concluding that the enquiry against him was fair and proper. Surale's petition also took exception to the judgement of the Industrial Court dismissing the revision petition filed by him.
Surale joined MSRTC in 1978 and was working as a Head mechanic at Gangapur Depot since 1993. A State Transport bus caught fire after an accident on May 2, 2002 and as a result 33 passengers were burnt alive. A special enquiry committee was constituted and the petitioner was dismissed from service as he was the head mechanic of the workshop held guilty for negligence.
According to the petitioner, his superior, the Mechanical Engineer, Aurangabad was held responsible and it was observed that he deserves to be prosecuted. Surprisingly, he was appointed as the enquiry officer to enquire into the charge sheet dated 08/06/2002 issued to the petitioner, it was contended.
Petitioner's counsel UV Khonde submitted that a person, who has been held to be guilty with regard to the maintenance of the bus, was appointed as the enquiry officer for enquiring into the accident allegedly caused by the negligence of the petitioner.
Whereas, appearing for the respondent MSRTC and the Mechanical Engineer who was the enquiry officer Advocate BS Deshmukh argued that the past record of the petitioner is highly blemished and he was guilty of gross negligence.
The incident has occurred wherein the propeller shaft was defective which led to the bus catching fire. Though the Mechanical Engineer is held to be responsible for having not conducted a proper repairing of the mechanical part, being head of the said Department, he has not been charge-sheeted and the Corporation has not held him guilty in any manner, Deshmukh asserted.
At the very outset, Justice Ghuge observed-
"In my view, an enquiry could be set aside, if it is found that the Enquiry Officer was in some way connected with the incident and the charge that has been levelled upon the charge sheeted employee. Such factors will have to be tested on the touchstone of prejudice since it should not so happen that the Enquiry Officer, who in some way is involved in the same incident and his findings would cause prejudice to the charge sheeted employee."
Court referred to the extensive report prepared by Chandrakant Chavan, Deputy General Manager, Aurangabad Region into the said accident. It was specially observed in the report that there was a mechanical defect in the said bus and it should have been sent for a thorough examination by the Divisional Workshop Officers and the employees concerned with the repairing of the said part in the said Department. The Mechanical Engineer (Yantra Abhiyanta) was In-charge of the said division and it could not be believed that he was not aware of the said frequent damages to the same part. He was expected to cause a thorough examination. He did not even refer the part to any specific examination and that indicates the negligence and callous attitude on his part, Court said.
Thus, Court concluded that the Mechanical Engineer or Enquiry Officer himself was under a cloud –
"He was indicted by the Enquiry Commission clearly concluding that he was negligent and was in a definite way responsible. The same Mechanical Engineer prepared the charge sheets against the charge sheeted employees, conducted the enquiries and held the charge sheeted employees guilty. The petitioner is one such employee. The entire blame has been put on the charge sheeted employee. It is apparent that the said Enquiry Officer had conveniently put the entire blame on the workers so as to steer clear of the said incident and save his skin."
Court however refused to grant a notional continuity in service to the petitioner and partly allowed the petition setting aside both the impugned judgements. MSRTC was directed to produce the original enquiry records before the Labour Court and Court asked the Labour Court to decide the complaint after hearing the matter afresh before August 2020.
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