Supreme Court: A Division Bench comprising of Indira Banerjee and V. Ramasubramanian, JJ., gave succour to a doctor in service of the Delhi Government who was denied study leave to pursue post graduation amid COVID-19 pandemic last year. The Court directed PGI, Chandigarh to admit him to the post graduate course scheduled to commence in July 2021, on the basis of INICET-2020, which he had successfully cleared. The Court observed that it would be a travesty of justice to deny relief to the appellant, when he had to make a personal sacrifice in the larger public interest, to serve the cause of humanity.
The task before the Court was to pacify the legitimate expectation of COVID-19 warriors like the appellant to fair treatment, in conformity with the Service Rules by which they are governed, to enable them to pursue higher education and enhance their educational qualifications.
The appellant, a doctor, who joined service of the Delhi Government in 2014, was presently posted as Medical Officer of the Emergency and Accidents Department at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital, New Delhi. He has duly completed five years of regular and continuous service with the Government of NCT of Delhi and was thus eligible to avail study leave to pursue the post graduate course, in accordance with the Directives and Guidelines of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.
The appellant successfully cleared INICET-2020 (Institute of National Importance Combined Entrance Test), a highly competitive examination for admission to the MD/MS courses in some of the premier medical institutions of the country, such as AIIMS and PGI, Chandigarh. On 29-12-2020, he was allotted a seat by PGI, Chandigarh in the MD course in Paediatrics.
The authorities of Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital duly issued the required ‘No Objection Certificate’ to the appellant to enable him to pursue post graduation. After completing all requisite formalities, the appellant applied for study leave to the Delhi Government as per the applicable Rules to enable him to join the post graduate course. His application was however declined in view of the policy decision taken by the Government.
The Policy Decision
On or about 20-10-2020, a policy decision was taken, not to grant any further study leave to the doctors working in the hospitals of the Government of NCT of Delhi, in view of COVID-19 pandemic. Another Office Order dated 22-10-2020 was issued by the Government of NCT of Delhi, Health and Family Welfare Department (Medical Branch) which read: “In view of the prevailing situation of COVID-19 in NCT of Delhi and the projections made by Experts about the expected increase in cases of COVID-19 during the period November-December, 2020, it is not feasible, in public interest to spare the services of GDMOs, to pursue Post Graduation courses. GDMOs cannot be acceded to at this juncture.”
The appellant was aggrieved by the fact that even though he cleared INICET-2020 and was selected for post graduate course in PGI, Chandigarh, he was declined study leave. By an order dated 22-1-2021, the Delhi Government rejected appellant’s application for study leave, having regard to the policy decision taken by the Government on 20-10-2020 and the subsequent order dated 22-10-2020. On 31-1-2021, admission to post graduate courses in PGI, Chandigarh, for the 2020 session was closed, and the allotment of post graduate seat to the appellant was cancelled.
The appellant filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court challenging the action of the Delhi Government in not granting study leave. The writ petition was dismissed. Aggrieved, the appellant approached the Supreme Court.
The appellant argued that he had arbitrarily been declined study leave whereas many other doctors, similarly circumstanced, had been granted study leave to pursue post graduate courses, even after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was submitted that there was no justification in refusing study leave to the appellant and depriving him of the opportunity to pursue post graduate studies in a premier institution.
The Delhi Government argued that it had neither acted arbitrarily, nor discriminated against the appellant. The order of refusing study leave to the appellant had to be taken in view of the pandemic, with predictions of exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and the consequential policy decision taken on 20-10-2020. It was submitted that the Delhi Government acted within the parameters of law and did not commit any wrong in not allowing study leave to the appellant.
Analysis and Observations
Judicial review of policy decisions
The Court noted that while it is true that numerous doctors were granted study leave during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was before the policy decision taken by the Government. The fact that some doctors may have been granted study leave after the spread of COVID-19 cases in Delhi, did not debar the Government from taking a policy decision not to grant study leave to doctors any further, when exigencies necessitated such a decision. The Court observed:
“In any case the prudence of and/or justification for the policy decision cannot be examined by the Court in exercise of its extraordinary power of judicial review under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.“
Policy decision not arbitrary
The Court was of the view that the policy decision not to grant study leave to doctors for a certain length of time, in apprehension of a rise in COVID-19 cases, to ensure the availability of as many doctors as possible for duty, was neither arbitrary, nor discriminatory, nor violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
Legitimate expectation of COVID-19 Warriors
The Court recorded that while it may be true that no leave can be claimed as a matter of right and the Delhi Government apparently acted within the parameters of law in declining study leave to the appellant in the teeth of COVID-19 pandemic when doctors were urgently required in Government hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. But at the same time, said the Court:
“At the same time, this Court cannot be oblivious to the legitimate expectation of COVID-19 warriors like the appellant to fair treatment, in conformity with the Service Rules by which they are governed, to enable them to pursue higher education and enhance their educational qualifications. Needless to mention that doctors with higher qualifications and special knowledge in specific areas would be an asset to the medical fraternity, as also to the society.“
Need for reconsideration
The Court noted that the policy decision not to grant study leave to doctors working in hospitals under the Delhi Government in apprehension of rise in COVID-19 cases, is obviously a temporary one. The policy cannot continue indefinitely irrespective of changes in circumstances. The policy has necessarily to be reviewed from time to time and relaxed and/or modified once there is decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases in the NCT of Delhi.
The Court was of the view that since COVID-19 situation in Delhi is now comparatively better, the application of the appellant for study leave should be reconsidered. The Delhi Government should, as a model employer, make an endeavour to see that the appellant is not deprived of the fruits of his success in the INICET-2020 and is able to pursue post graduate studies.
The Court rejected the submission that the appellant be admitted in the January 2021 session, since the classes commenced over six months ago and the students who were admitted to that session have completed their first semester and entered the second semester. There could be no question of any direction to admit him to the second semester directly when he has not been able to attend a single class of the first semester.
The question was whether the appellant can be accommodated in the next academic session scheduled to commence in July 2021.
The Court was of the opinion that it cannot fold its arms and remain a mute spectator to the plight of the appellant. After all, “nothing rankles the heart more than a brooding sense of injustice”. It reiterated the preposition of law that:
“[In] rare and exceptional cases, a meritorious candidate, who has suffered injustice by reason of his/her inability to secure admission in a medical course, whether under-graduate or postgraduate, due to no fault of his/her own, who has taken recourse to law promptly, without delay, might be granted relief of being accommodated in the same post in the next session.“
Since the seat in the post graduate course in PGI, Chandigarh which remained unfilled due to inability of the appellant to join has been carried over to the July 2021 session which was yet to commence, and re-advertised, the Court deemed it appropriate to direct PGI, Chandigarh to admit the appellant to the post graduate course scheduled to commence in July 2021 on the basis of INICET-2020, which he has successfully cleared. Otherwise, according to the Court, the appellant would be irreparably prejudiced.
The Delhi Government was also asked to reconsider appellant’s application for study leave taking into consideration the decline in COVID-19 cases in NCT of Delhi. It was directed that unless there is a substantial rise in COVID-19 cases, the leave application of the appellant shall not be declined.
Before concluding, the Court stated that these directions were being passed in exercise of the power under Article 142 of the Constitution in the facts and circumstances of the case; and the instant order will not be treated as a precedent. [Rohit Kumar v. State (NCT of Delhi), 2021 SCC OnLine SC 468, decided on 15-7-2021]