The Supreme Court has admitted a public interest litigation to decide if two judges of the Railway Claims Tribunal (RCT) retiring when they are supposed to will be a violation of their fundamental rights and if they deserve an extension of service instead. The first hearing is on Monday.
Rajan Sharma, vice-chairman of the Mumbai bench of RCT who is due to retire on Monday, and his counterpart in the Secundrabad bench M K Gupta, due to retire on June 4, have dragged the Railway Ministry to the apex court, citing urgency and seeking an extension by invoking Article 32 of the Constitution. Article 32 enshrines a person’s right to move the Supreme Court, seeking constitutional remedy for protection of his fundamental rights.
The unusual plea has left the Railway Ministry flummoxed. It is preparing to defend itself saying, among other things, that there is no violation of fundamental rights here and that this did not have anything to do with public interest either.
It is preparing to tell the court that the process to fill vacancies in the tribunal was on and recommendations had been sent to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) for approval. The ministry says approval from ACC is due anytime and the delay may be due to the COVID-19 outbreak, sources said.
According to the rules when the two members joined RCT, a member would retire after completion of five years or on attaining the age of 62 years, whichever was earlier. Both are at the brink of completing their tenures. In February, these rules were revised to allow service for four years or attaining the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. The two are contending that since they have not yet attained the age of 62 years, they may be allowed to continue till new appointments happen.
This is the second time workings of the tribunal have led to controversy. Last year, a judge was removed after it was found that he was allegedly involved in false compensation claims worth at least Rs 50 crore. The CBI is now investigating the matter.
“There is no fundamental right to be reappointed or seek extension. Neither can a court direct who to appoint and who not to appoint. It is the complete discretion of the government. This is not a public interest litigation; it is a personal interest litigation,” said a senior Railway official. “There is not a single ground of violation of their fundamental rights here.”
A person familiar with the case from Sharma’s side said that owing to the lockdown, it would take about a year to fill vacancies that will arise in various benches of RCT. “In June, all Member Judicials will be retiring across all benches. Then RCT will be left with five Members Technical and one Chairman. Against a sanctioned strength of 46 members, if only six people are working, you can imagine what will be the fate of the poor people who are victims of railway accidents and our petitioners,” he said.
The Railway ministry had served retirement notices to the two judges in January, long before the lockdown. Since then, the two had been requesting the ministry for extension, but the pleas were not entertained. In the petition in apex court, they have said this was the only constitutional remedy left to them.
The two have cited, among other things, that the central government recently extended tenures of officers who were to retire between March 25 and April 30 by three months.
The Railway ministry is going to submit in court that while there is a pendency of 25,571 cases across 23 benches of RCT as of now, there are other members like Member Technical and also Chairman of Principal Bench of RCT in Delhi, so the function of delivering judicial remedies to victims would not be affected in any way if the two vice-chairmen retire when they are supposed to
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