K B Jandial
Sometime it appears that the Central Govt has a penchant for controversies in J&K, especially after “abrogation” of Article 370 for which Jammu jubilantly stood by this bold decision facilitating full integration with rest of the country. While they still overwhelmingly stand by it, a feeling does come after facing heat of slew of actions contributing to Jammu’s further disempowerments, was this what we asked for?
Brushing aside Jammu’s statehood demand, undivided India’s one of the biggest princely States created by the valiant Dogra rulers, was regrettably sliced to two UTs, maintaining Jammu’s umbilical cord with Kashmir and thereby, politically disempowered the people. The 4G internet facility which has become essential part of daily life continues to be elusive since abrogation of Article 370, which undoubtedly was essential initially, to keep the explosive situation in Kashmir under control. This is despite when Jammu remained an oasis of communal harmony and peace all through. Is it because Kashmir would feel discriminated or its ground situation doesn’t permit? Either way Jammu suffers as well?
The entire process of recruitment has been stopped and PSC bundled up along with seven other Statutory Commissions and Bodies without any alternative except one now reconstituted. Then came the sensitive issue of domicile and reservations in Govt services. The definition of Domicile is not inclusive and the people would have to struggle to procure this certificate as existing PRC is no longer a relevant document. The latest addition is the Central Administrative Tribunal.
After full integration with the country on 6th August, 2019 and conversion of J&K State in to a ‘privileged’ biggest ever UT, the Administrative Tribunal Act of 1985 was among 107 central laws extended to both the UTs through J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 w.e.f. 31 October, 2019. Enacted by the Parliament under Article 323A of the Constitution of India and with its extension to J&K, the jurisdiction of all courts except the Supreme Court was barred in respect of service matters. More than 38000 cases of service matters are pending with the High Court alone which has stopped hearing these matters for want of jurisdiction. For the last six months, no action was taken on this critical issue. Now, the Department of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions has notified that Chandigarh Bench of the CAT as the relevant Bench to adjudicate service matters of government employees of J&K & Ladakh. This notification has spiked the concern among the employees, lawyers and the people at large about the hassle of visiting Chandigarh to file applications, consequent delayed justice and related issues.
Article 323A provides establishment of Administrative Tribunal for the Union and separately for each State or even for two or more States for adjudication or trial of disputes and complaints relating to recruitment and service conditions of persons engaged in the affairs of the Union or the State or other authorities under the control of the Government. Since Article 323A was not extended to the erstwhile state of J&K, the State didn’t have its own Administrative Tribunal and the service matters were heard by the High Court under writ jurisdiction. Now, it can have its own Tribunal.
There is no reservation on extension of the Administrative Tribunal Act and introduction of the same system of adjudicating the service matters of Govt employees to J&K & Ladakh as is being followed elsewhere in the country. The CAT as an institution has proved beyond doubt, as the best possible forum to achieve the objective of speedy justice in respect of employees’ service matters which have lingered on in civil courts & High Court for years together, and many times the justice delivered post superannuation or even after death of the petitioner. As per CAT’s available data for 2018, the disposal of the cases since its inception has been 93.41%. So, the jurisdiction of the Administrative Tribunal Act is a welcome step.
Admittedly, the Tribunal is much simpler than the ordinary courts in respect of jurisdiction and procedure. It exercises jurisdiction only in relation to the service matters and procedural simplicity. The applicant can file and appear personally before the Tribunal by remitting a nominal fee of Rs. 50/-.
Like in higher judiciary, CAT too seriously suffers from vacancies which impede its ability to deliver. The CAT has 17 Benches including the Principal Bench at New Delhi and 21 Circuit Benches. All the benches put together has sanctioned strength of 66 posts of Members including the Chairman; 33 posts each are of Judicial & Administrative Members. Legally, a Bench has two Members- one Judicial and other Administrative. While the Principal Bench has 12 Members, other benches have members ranging from eight to two. Shockingly, 28 posts of Members are presently vacant.
Chandigarh Bench is the relevant Bench which has got additional jurisdiction of UT employees of J&K and Ladakh, in addition to its original jurisdiction over Central Govt employees of these UTs and States of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and all employees of UT of Chandigarh. Amazingly, its three posts of Members are vacant and as such, legally no bench can be constituted with a solitary Member. And employees of UT are made to believe that its Circuit Bench will deliver quicker justice to UT.
In wake of concerns expressed in Jammu, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions promptly set at rest the misconceived apprehensions through a statement that neither the party nor the counsel needs to visit Chandigarh for filing petitions as these can be filed online. These would also be filed at Tribunal’s Secretariat as and when established “locally” once the UT administration provides accommodation. What does the ‘locally” mean? At Jammu, Srinagar or both? The confusion continues. While the smaller issue of ‘convenience’ has been addressed the main issue of separate Bench for J&K haunts everyone despite the clarification.
Right now, the Chandigarh Bench is non-functional with solitary member and two members are needed to form a Bench. For sake of argument, even when fully functional, one circuit bench of two members would have to be on move always for Shimla, Leh, Kargil, Jammu & Srinagar. Will it be possible?
It is beyond comprehension as to why the Govt of India is reluctant to sanction a separate Bench for J&K (&Ladakh) and insist on “dispensing justice” through Circuit Bench. When the CAT was constituted in November 1985, just 2963 cases of service matters of Central Govt employees pending in courts were transferred to the Principal Bench and four other Benches. Against it, a huge pendency of about 38000 cases are under transfer to Chandigarh Bench when the average annual rate of cases instituted in all the 17 benches is about 26000 with pendency of 50053 cases at the end of 2018. J&K UT has more than five lakh Govt employees including daily wagers who now fall under the jurisdiction of Chandigarh Bench and no other single Bench or even the Principal Bench has handled such a huge pendency. The Principal Bench has pendency of only 10673.Can J&K pendency be handled by the Circuit Bench of a nearly defunct Chandigarh’s Bench?
Initially, the Act had created the Principal Bench at New Delhi and four other Benches at Allahabad, Calcutta, Madras, New Bombay (section 5 sub section7). This Section empowers the Central Government to establish more Benches at other places by a notification and it has, so far, created 12 additional Benches. With huge pendency 38000 cases and institution of hundreds of more cases once things stabilize, what could be a more convincing ground for sanctioning the 18th CAT Bench for J&K with a circuit Bench for Ladakh? Chandigarh Circuit Bench is not equipped to do justice with Govt employees of these two UTs. Dr. Jitendra Singh who heads Department of Personnel, Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions is better placed to appreciate the entire gambit of issue including necessity for a separate Bench of CAT or alternatively, UT’s own Administrative Tribunal under Article 323A. On what basis he is confident of dispensing quick justice through non-functional Chandigarh Circuit Bench?