Must stop believing that Govt. staff can’t face action: Bombay High Court [27.7.22]

The Bombay High Court has said the approach of government employees that no action can be taken against them in spite of wrongdoings needed to stop.

The Bombay High Court has said the approach of government employees that no action can be taken against them in spite of wrongdoings needed to stop.

“There is such a thing as too much leniency. The approach in this country of believing that when one works for government no action can ever be taken no matter how persistently one is found to be doing wrong is an approach that needs to now stop as fast as possible,” the bench of Justices GS Patel and Gauri Godse of the Bombay high court said this while hearing an appeal filed by a former Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) bus conductor.

The bench was hearing the appeal of Jaising Sonawane, a bus conductor, against whom an order passed by a single-judge bench of a high court in 2005 upholding a labour court verdict that confirmed the termination of his services.

The case before the court was that in December 1995, Sonawane was on duty on the Pune to Borivali route when an inspection squad checked the bus at Lonavala. It found that Sonawane had wrongly punched some tickets and had an excess of Rs 24.5 in his possession.

Moreover, it was found that the wrongly punched tickets of six passengers out of the 50 on the bus were not mentioned in the waybill. Sonawane punched the tickets as being from Borivali to Pune, ie the return journey, rather than Pune to Borivali for six of the passengers on the board. The ticket numbers were identified and so was the denomination of each ticket. The Borivali to Pune fare was Rs 40 at that time, but the Pune to Borivali fare was Rs 44 per passenger in 1995.

A chargesheet was filed against Sonawane and, following an inquiry, his services were terminated. Sonawane raised an industrial dispute and a reference came to be made to the labour court, which passed an award in February 2005 dismissing his reference, prompting him to file the petition before the high court.

The advocate for Sonawane argued before the Division Bench about the disproportionality of the punishment. It was argued that a lenient view ought to have been taken and that a lesser punishment would serve the ends of justice. The Bench stated that though proportionality was crucial in decision-making processes, it did not mean that a lenient view could be taken of every infringement.

"As to the generality of the proposition that proportionality is crucial in any decision-making process, there cannot be any doubt. But this does not mean that every infraction has to be allowed to be got away with just a slap on the wrist, as it was. When one assesses the doctrine of proportionality, one looks not only at the immediate cause inviting punishment but also at the entire context and, in a given case, a pattern or a history of conduct, especially past conduct," it stated.

Replying to Sonawane’s contention that there was no actual defalcation or misappropriation on his part, the Court underlined that the labour court had concluded that there was a mala fide intention on Sonawane's part. The bench pointed to the Labour Court order which stated that there was an intention on Sonawane’s part to use these six tickets for a return journey. In other words, this meant that there was some illicit intention for the journey in one direction.

The court observed that Sonawane’s lawyer’s argument that there was no actual defalcation or misappropriation is less than impressive. “It means that unless somebody actually commits theft, no action can be taken even if the person is apprehended while in the process of attempting a wrongdoing," the bench said.


27 Jul 2022