Supreme Court: In the case where the last attemptees of the UPSC Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination, 2020 had sought an extra attempt to clear the exam in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bench of Justice AM Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra and Ajay Rastogi*, JJ has refused the plea and has held that allowing extra attempt in such a case would set a precedent and also have cascading effect on examinations in other streams.

“The data furnished to this Court by the Commission clearly indicate that various selections have been held by the Commission for Central Services in the year 2020 during COVID-19 pandemic and selections must have been held by State Commissions and other recruiting agencies, if this Court shows indulgence to few who had participated in the Examination 2020, it will set down a precedent and also have cascading effect on examinations in other streams, for which we are dissuaded to exercise plenary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution.”

The Court, however, left it to the Government to exercise its discretion in meeting out the nature of difficulties, if come across in future in dealing with the situation, if required.

What was being claimed?

The petitioners were unable to qualify in their last attempt in the Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination, 2020, held on 4th October 2020 and approached the Court seeking mandamus to the Government to extend one additional attempt to them as they are being barred from attempting the examination in future on account of exhausting of available attempts or on account of age bar subsequent to Examination 2020.

It was argued before the Court that,

“the sudden and strict lockdown due to unprecedented pandemic in March, 2020 had made a  large disruption in the life of the common man and the measures adopted led to difficulties and impediments in the preparation of the Examination 2020 for many aspirants and the Government failed to take any policy decision for the last attemptees before   holding Examination 2020 to enable them to take an appropriate/suitable decision and noticing precedence from the earlier policy of 1st respondent to grant an extra attempt to last attemptees in the event causing widespread hardships left with no choice except to appear in the examination even though they did not have an adequate opportunity and infrastructure and they were left out blinded with uncertainty.”

Why the Court refused the plea of the petitioners?

The Court noticed that what was being prayed “in the first blush appears to be attractive but it lacks legal strength and foundation for various reasons.”

Adequate opportunity

The scheme of Rules 2020 clearly stipulate that the entry age to participate in this competition is 21 years and the exit age for general candidates is 32 years and at least each candidate gets minimum 11 years to participate in the competitive examination, i.e., CSE, in the instant case. For those who claim reservation vertical/ horizontal, they have numerous/unlimited chances and are also entitled for age relaxations.

No discretion with authority to grant relaxations

It may further be noticed that under Rule 6 of Rules 2020, there is a clear mandate that age limit prescribed in no case can be relaxed subject to the relaxations which have been enumerated for various categories. So far as the candidates who appear in the general category and have crossed the age of 32 years, no discretion is left with the authority to grant any relaxation in upper age limit prescribed for the candidates appeared in the instant Examination 2020.

No change in syllabus and additional time to prepare

The syllabus of the preliminary examination has not changed since 2015 and after the Rules 2020 were notified, the notice for the Examination 2020 was published on 12th February 2020 and the scheduled date of the examination was fixed on 31st May, 2020 but because of the unprecedented situation of Covid¬19 pandemic, the Commission took a policy decision to defer the examination and in the changed situation, after there was a relaxation in the lockdown, ultimately on 5th June, 2020 took a decision to hold the examination on 4th October 2020 and, therefore, instead of three   months, the candidates got additional five months (i.e. eight months) to which one ordinarily can  prepare for appearing in  the examination  in terms of the scheme of Rules 2020.

Already a “second chance” given to candidates

Under the scheme of Rules 2020, mere filling up of the form is not sufficient to avail an attempt.  If someone appeared in either of the paper of the preliminary examination, that was considered to be an attempt availed by the candidate and, in the given situation, after the application form was filled, the candidates who wanted to withdraw their application form at the later stage because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the commission took a policy decision to open the window for the second time, which in the ordinary course is not available under the scheme of rules, for the candidates who intended to withdraw their application from 1st August, 2020 to 8th August, 2020.

“Since the   examination was scheduled for 4th October, 2020 only those candidates were left who were mentally prepared to appear and willing to avail an opportunity of appearing in the Examination 2020 and after appearing in the examination, when they could not qualify, it has given a way to the present litigation on the specious ground of Covid-19 pandemic that they were unable to effectively participate in the process of selection which has been initiated by the Commission in holding preliminary examination on 4th October, 2020.”

No special case of petitioners than those who have appeared in various examinations in the year 2020

A  large number of candidates appeared in the various examinations in the year 2020 during COVID-19 pandemic and everyone must have faced some constraints/impediments/inconvenience in one way or the other,

“… merely because the present petitioners made a complaint to this Court, cannot be taken into isolation for the purpose of seeking additional chance/attempt in the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic, which has been faced by not only the candidates appeared in Examination 2020 but by the candidates appeared in the various examinations/recruitment tests held by the State Commissions or by other recruiting agencies and by and large, every member of the society in one way or the other but that does not in any manner give legitimate right to the petitioners to claim additional benefit/attempt which is otherwise not permissible under the scheme of Rules 2020.”

Can the Court issue mandamus to frame policy?

It was argued before the Court that there is always a change in the upper age limit and number of attempts in different spell and that in the year 2015, the Union of India allowed one more attempt in the Civil Service Examination 2015 for the candidates who appeared in CSE 2011.

However, as pointed out by the Union of India, there was a substantial change in the pattern of   Civil Service (Preliminary) Examination 2011, in the given circumstances, it was considered appropriate to grant one more attempt in Civil Service Examination, 2015 to such candidates who appeared in Civil Service Examination, 2011 either due to reaching upper age limit or due to exhausting of number of attempts.

The Court, however, noticed that the said instance cannot be made to be the basis or a foundation for the petitioners to site as a precedent in claiming to seek one additional attempt as a matter of right which is not permissible under the scheme of Rules 2020 or with the aid of Article 14 of the Constitution to take a call in meeting out the difficulties which have been faced as alleged in the given circumstance.

“Judicial review of a policy decision and to issue mandamus to frame policy in a particular manner are absolutely different.”

It is within the realm of the executive to take a policy decision based on the   prevailing circumstances for better administration and in meeting out the exigencies but at the same time, it is not within the domain of the Courts to legislate. The Courts do interpret the laws and in such an interpretation, certain creative process is involved. The Courts have the jurisdiction to declare the law as unconstitutional. That too, where it is called for.  The Court is called upon to consider the validity of a policy decision only when a challenge is made that such policy decision infringes fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution or any other statutory right.

“Merely because as a matter of policy, if the 1st respondent has granted relaxation in the past for  the reason that there was  a change in the examination pattern/syllabus and in the given situation, had considered to be an impediment for the participant in the Civil Service Examination, no assistance can be claimed by the petitioners in seeking mandamus to the 1st respondent to come out with a policy granting relaxation to the participants who had availed a final and last attempt or have crossed the upper age by appearing in the Examination 2020 as a matter of right.”

[Rachna v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 140, decided on 24.02.2021]

*Judgment by: Justice Ajay Rastogi

Appearances in the matter by

For petitioners: Senior Advocate Shyam Divan,  

For Respondents: Additional Solicitor General S.V.   Raju and advocate Naresh Kaushik

For intervenors: Senior Advocates P.V. Narasimha and Pallav Shishodia

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