Saturday, November 20, 2010

Supreme Court upholds differential duty hours

The Supreme Court has held that differential treatment “does not per se amount to violation of Article 14 (equality) of the Constitution. It violates Article 14 only when there is no conceivable reasonable basis and makes the working of the executive authorities extremely difficult if not impossible.”

Giving this ruling, a Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said: “It is not prudent or pragmatic for the Court to insist on absolute equality when there are diverse situations and contingencies. In view of the inherent complexities involved in modern society, some free play must be given to the executive authorities in this connection.”

Writing the judgment, Justice Katju said: “Article 14 cannot be interpreted in a doctrinaire or dogmatic manner. Absolute and inflexible concepts are an anathema to progress and change. In our opinion, fixing of hours of work, provided it does not violate any statutory provision or statutory rule, is really a management function and this Court must exercise restraint and not ordinarily interfere with such management function. The classification would not violate the equality provision contained in Article 14 of the Constitution, if it has a rational or reasonable basis.”

Pointing out that the words ‘reasonable' or ‘rational' had to be properly interpreted, the Bench said it had become necessary to lay down certain guidelines. One test which the court is laying down is: is it conducive to the functioning of modern society? If it is, then it is certainly reasonable and rational.

In the instant case, the grievance of the Transport and Dock Workers Union was that for employees recruited by the Mumbai Port Trust as Typist-cum-Computer clerks before November 1, 1996, duty was for six-and-a-half hours, whereas for those recruited after this cut-off date it was for seven-and-a-half. The Bombay High Court initially entertained the writ petition, but finally dismissed it. The appeal was directed against this judgment.

Dismissing the appeal, the Bench said: “In the modern world businesses have to face competition with other businesses. To do so they may have to have longer working hours and introduce efficiency, while avoiding labour disputes. Looked at from this point of view, the classification in question is clearly reasonable.”

It said: “In our opinion, the decision of the Port was bona fide, and hence no fault can be found with the said decision and it cannot be said that it violates Article 14 of the Constitution. Also, avoidance of labour disputes is a reasonable basis for the classification. Judges must maintain judicial self-restraint while exercising the powers of judicial review of administrative or legislative decisions. Adjudication must be done within the system of historically validated restraints and conscious minimisation of the Judges' preferences. The Court must not embarrass the administrative authorities and must realise that administrative authorities have expertise in the field of administration, while the Court does not.”

The Bench said: “In administrative matters the Court should, therefore, ordinarily defer to the judgment of the administrators, unless the decision is clearly violative of some statute or is shockingly arbitrary.”

In the present case, there was a reasonable basis for the classification, and hence there is no violation of Article 14, the Bench held.


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