The Bombay High Court quashed the order of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) taking disciplinary action taken against its employees after four years, observing that on the ground that FCI officer did not hear the employee before imposing penalty.
Interestingly, the inquiry officer had held the employee, JJ Halarnekar, only partially guilty, but disciplinary authority disagreed with the finding, and did not offer the employee any opportunity to comment on inquiry report.
Observing that it was violation of principles of natural justice to deny an employee to present his side, a division bench of Chief Justice Swatanter Kumar and SC Dharmadhikari recently held the FCI had denied its employee "protection of law".
The incident dates back to 1986 when Halarnekar was working in the office of district manager, FCI, Goa. A large consignment of wheat arrived in the FCI office there. Since there was no place, the wheat sacks were kept in the open space near the godown.
This caused loss of grains as they were infested by pigs, buffaloes, rats and birds. Halarnekar was held responsible prima facie guilty for causing the damage. A chargesheet was filed against him in April 1992.
However, inquiry officer held him only partially guilty, for "failing to maintain integrity and devotion to work."
The report was forwarded to disciplinary authority, which disagreed with inquiry report, and held that Halarnekar was guilty of all the charges in chargesheet, and imposed a penalty of Rs 34, 978 on him. He appealed against the same.
The HC observed that there was undue delay in even initiating the inquiry against Halarnekar, which started in 1990. However, that was not the reason stated for quashing the penalty.
According to the bench, Halarnekar was not given any opportunity to submit his say after inquiry report was filed before the disciplinary authority. And the penalty was imposed on him without giving him a chance.
Stating that "principles of natural justice will have to be read into FCI staff regulations" (under which inquiry was held), the court said that if opportunity of hearing is given, the employee could have persuaded disciplinary officer to accept favourable findings of inquiry officer.
"Charged officer must have opportunity to represent before disciplinary authority before final findings on the charges are recorded and punishment imposed," the court observed while setting aside the penalty imposed on Halarnekar.