“Recruitment to public services must command public confidence”; Supreme Court upholds cancellation of DSSSB Head Clerk selection process in light of “systematic irregularities”

“Where the recruitment to public employment stands vitiated as a consequence of systemic fraud or irregularities, the entire process becomes illegitimate. On the other hand, where it is possible to segregate persons who have indulged in mal-practices and to penalise them for their wrongdoing, it would be unfair to impose the burden of their wrong-doing on those who are free from taint. To treat the innocent and the wrong-doers equally by subjecting the former to the consequence of the cancellation of the entire process would be contrary to Article 14 because unequals would then be treated equally.”

Supreme Court: The bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud* and MR Shah, JJ has upheld the Delhi Government’s decision to cancel the selection process conducted by Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board (DSSSB) during the year 2014 -15 and said,

“The nature of the allegations which were found to be substantiated upon a careful examination by the first Committee showed that the credibility of the process itself had been eroded. In such a situation, where a decision is taken by the Government to cancel the entire process, it cannot be held to be irrational or arbitrary, applying the yardstick of fair procedure and proportionality to the decision-making process.”

The Controversy

On 26 December 2009, DSSSB issued an advertisement inviting applications for various posts among them being the post of [(Grade 2 (DASS)]/Head Clerk (post code 90/09) for a total of 231 vacancies in Services Department – II, GNCTD. 62,056 applications were received, and 61,179 were found eligible.

The scheme of the examination comprised of:

 (i) Tier-I – a preliminary examination for shortlisting candidates for the main examination. This was an objective type test carrying 200 marks and for a duration of 2.5 hours – Conducted on 29 June 2014 – 8,224 candidates appeared.

(ii) Tier-II – the main examination which was of a descriptive type carrying 200 marks for a duration of 2.5 hours.

Notably 4,712 candidates (approximately 55 per cent) were drawn from 22 pin codes of Delhi as against a total of 609 pin codes.

Between 14 October 2014 and 27 March 2015, complaints were received by the DSSSB as to serious irregularities in the conduct of Tier-I examination alleging:

(i) leakage of question papers;

(ii) mass cheating;

(iii) allotment of common examination centres and rooms to members of the same family; and

(iv) impersonation of candidates.

The results of the Tier-I examination were declared on 21 October 2014 and 2,415 candidates were shortlisted. The Tier-II examination was conducted on 29 March 2015 and its results were declared on 15 July 2015.

On 22 August 2015, following the receipt of “serious complaints” in the office of the Chief Minister, GNCTD regarding irregularities in the conduct of the examinations conducted by DSSSB for the post of Grade-II DASS, a Committee consisting of the Director (Vigilance) and District Magistrate (East) was appointed to enquire into the matter and submit its report.

Findings of Committee

First Committee

  • As many as 50 candidates who had high marks in the Tier-I test (e.g. 170 out of 200) secured less than 50 marks in the Tier-II test and some candidates had obtained zero marks;
  • The absence of randomization enabled candidates who were closely related to sit in a sequence;
  • A significant proportion of the candidates belonged to a concentrated geographical area.
  • A delay of almost five years in conducting the Tier-I examination. As a result, of the 62,056 applicants only 8224 had appeared at the Tier-I examination giving rise to an apprehension that adequate information had not been furnished to candidates.
  • There were examples of candidates who had secured high marks in Tier – I examination but extremely low marks in the Tier-II exam.
  • The Committee found it “astonishing that the whole marks lists is dominated by a particular section of society” based on their surnames.
  • Members of the same family were found to be sitting in close proximity both in the Tier-I and Tier-II examinations of which details were tabulated in the report.
  • The Committee had addressed a questionnaire to the officials of DSSSB in regard to the alleged irregularities but they expressed their inability to answer the queries.
  • The videography was blurred, thumb impressions were unrecognizable, jammers were not working properly and candidates had been allowed to appear irrespective of their educational qualifications.
  • There was a racket which had led to the impersonation of candidates. This racket involved a person by the name of Anil Kumar Malik who was the Chief Invigilator at a particular centre, who was allegedly connected with a coaching centre which was also involved in the leakage of the question papers. The Committee noted the allegation that this person had repeatedly fixed his duties in a choice of his own centres with the help of DSSSB staff and there were instances of impersonation which had emerged.

In this backdrop and considering the voluminous nature of the documentary material, the Committee was of the view that either the CBI or the Crime Branch would be able to investigate into the matter.

The Committee also noticed that the issuance of admit cards only through the electronic mode, which was not prescribed in the advertisement. One of the main reasons for the appearance of a small proportion of candidates as compared to the applications was the inability of candidates to access the internet to download the e-admit cards. Further, the advertisement had not mentioned that admit cards shall be issued through the electronic medium only.

“A period of five years had elapsed since the date of the advertisement. It was not possible for the candidates to keep a vigil on the notifications of a single examination. In this backdrop, the decision of DSSSB, during the course of the process, to allow only e-admit cards was a deviation which resulted in a small number of candidates appearing in the Tier-I examination. This was clearly a pointer to the denial of equal access and opportunity to all candidates in the selection process.”

Second Committee

The Second Committee was formed “to check the credentials of all the candidates falling in the zone of consideration in the merit list, for Gr.II/DASS (post code 90/09) for checking of the candidate and the authenticity of his/her candidature”.

It was argued that when the Deputy Chief Minister directed that a Committee be constituted to check for impersonation from amongst candidates within the zone of selection, by his noting dated 23 December 2015, this would necessarily mean that the explanation which was tendered by DSSSB in regard to whether any irregularities had taken place in the examination stood accepted and nothing further remained except to check for impersonation. Hence, it has been submitted that once the second Committee came to the conclusion that none of the 281 candidates in the zone of selection were found to be engaged in impersonation, there was no basis thereafter to cancel the examination.

Analysis by the Supreme Court

“Recruitment to public services must command public confidence. Persons who are recruited are intended to fulfil public functions associated with the functioning of the Government. Where the entire process is found to be flawed, its cancellation may undoubtedly cause hardship to a few who may not specifically be found to be involved in wrong-doing. But that is not sufficient to nullify the ultimate decision to cancel an examination where the nature of the wrong-doing cuts through the entire process so as to seriously impinge upon the legitimacy of the examinations which have been held for recruitment.”

The Court noticed that the complaints in regard to the recruitment process related both to the Tier-I and Tier-II examinations. The complaints were carefully analysed by the first Committee and as noted earlier serious irregularities were found.

“The irregularities were not confined to acts of mal-practice or unfair means on the part of a specific group of persons. On the contrary, the report of the Committee found deficiencies of a systemic nature which cast serious doubts on the legitimacy of the entire process of recruitment involving both the Tier-I and Tier-II examinations.”

The order of the Deputy Chief Minister dated 23 December 2015 did not differ with the conclusions of the first Committee. In fact, the said order refrained from commenting on the findings of the first Committee. All that the Deputy Chief Minister’s order directed was the narrowing of the scope of further investigation to one of the irregularities, that is, impersonation.

“In directing that a verification be carried out on whether any of the candidates in the zone of selection had been guilty of impersonation, the Deputy Chief Minister’s order did not wipe out the irregularities in the entire examination process. It is not possible to accept the submission that after ordering a verification on impersonation, nothing further remained to be done and that there could be no further rejection of the sanctity of the process on the basis of the report of the first Committee. It is quite possible that the Deputy Chief Minister directed a further investigation into the allegations of impersonation only to lend credibility to the ultimate decision which he would take.”

Further, the conduct of DSSSB and its officials was itself under a cloud. Their explanation could by no means be regarded as conclusive or binding upon the authorities of GNCTD. The Deputy Chief Minister in recommending that the entire process be cancelled emphasised the systemic nature of the violations which had taken place. These violations may or may not involve all of the candidates within the ultimate zone of selection but that is beside the point for the simple reason that the gravamen of the charge in the present case is not in regard to the taint which attaches to a specific group of persons but to the sanctity of the recruitment process as a whole.

The precedents of this Court sufficiently demonstrate that when the credibility of an entire examination stands vitiated by systemic irregularities, the issue then is not about seeking to identify the candidates who are tainted. In the present case, as we have seen, there was a basic denial of equal access to the Tier-I examination.

Hence, both the High Court and the Tribunal erred in laying exclusive focus on the report of the second Committee which was confined to the issue of impersonation.

“The report of the second Committee is only one facet of the matter. The Deputy Chief Minister was justified in going beyond it and ultimately recommending that the entire process should be cancelled on the basis of the findings which were arrived at in the report of the first Committee. Those findings do not stand obliterated nor has the Tribunal found any fault with those findings.”

Key Directions

(i) DSSSB and GNCTD must now take adequate measures to ensure against the recurrence of such instances which erode the credibility of and public confidence in the recruitment process. A comprehensive exercise to re-visit the modalities and safeguards is to be carried out within a period of two months to ensure that the probity of the recruitment process in future is maintained.

(ii) The notification dated 15 March 2016 of GNCTD cancelling the Tier-I and Tier-II examinations held for recruitment to the post of Head Clerk [(Grade II (DASS)] under post code 90/09 is upheld.

[Sachin Kumar v. Delhi Subordinate Service Selection Board, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 161, decided on 03.03.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

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