Supreme Court: The bench of KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna*, JJ has explained the scope of the definition of ‘family' under the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972 [CCS (Pension) Rules] and has held that the said definition is a restrictive and specific one and cannot be expanded to take within its sweep, all heirs, as provided under Hindu law, or other personal laws. Hence, a son or daughter adopted by the widow of a deceased government servant, after the death of the government servant, could not be included within the definition of ‘family' under Rule 54(14)(b) of the CCS (Pension) Rules.
“It is trite that in construing a word in a statute, caution has to be exercised in adopting a meaning ascribed to that word or concept in another statute.”
Background and Issue
The Court was dealing with a case where the widow of a retired official of the National Sample Survey Organization, had adopted a son in 1996, nearly two years after the death of the official, who had died issueless. The issue that, hence, arose before the Court was that:
Whether a child adopted by a widow of a government servant, subsequent to the death of the government servant would be included within the scope of the definition of ‘family' under Rule 54 (14) (b) of the CCS (Pension) Rules, and would therefore be entitled to receive family pension payable under the said Rules?
The Court noted that under Section 8 of Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 [HAMA Act, 1956] permits a female Hindu who is not a minor or of unsound mind, to take a son or daughter in adoption to herself, in her own right, with the express consent of her husband. However, no such pre-condition is applicable in relation to a Hindu widow; a divorced female Hindu; or a female Hindu whose husband has, after marriage, finally renounced the world or has been declared by a Court of competent jurisdiction to be of unsound mind.
While the law only provides limited perspective on the question as to whether this adopted child would be considered a part of the ‘family' of the husband, the Court has clarified that on adoption by a widow, the adopted son or daughter is deemed to be a member of the family of the deceased husband of the widow.
However, interestingly, the case at hand pertained not merely to a question as to the capacity of a Hindu widow to adopt, but involves issues of entitlement of a child adopted by a Hindu widow, to family pension payable to certain categories of legal heirs of a deceased government servant. It is necessary to refer to the relevant Rules of the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972, as amended from time to time.
The Court, hence, made clear that the provisions of the HAMA Act, 1956 determine the rights of a son adopted by a Hindu widow only vis-à-vis his adoptive family and do not lend much assistance in the instant case which does not pertain to the rights of the adoptee such as the Appellant herein under Hindu Law, but to his rights and entitlements under the CCS (Pension) Rules.
Noticing that there exists a vital difference between the rights of an adopted son under Hindu Law and his rights to draw family pension, which creates a burden on the public exchequer, the Court observed that,
“Rights and entitlements of an adopted son of a Hindu widow, as available in Hindu Law, as against his adoptive family, cannot axiomatically be held to be available to such adopted son, as against the government, in a case specifically governed by extant pension rules.”
Coming to Rule 54 of the CCS (Pension) Rules, the Court explained that Rule 54(14)(b) which is relevant to the present case, defines ‘family' “in relation to a government servant” indicating that the categories of persons listed thereunder, such as wife, husband, judicially separated wife or husband, son or unmarried daughter who has not attained the age of twenty-five years, adopted son or daughter, etc. are sought to be brought into association with the deceased government servant. The context requires that association or connection of such persons with the deceased government servant must be direct and not remote.
The definition of ‘family' is narrowly worded under the CCS (Pension) Rules, in the specific context of the entitlement to ‘family pension' and in relation to the government servant. Therefore, the word “adoption” in Rule 54(14)(b)(ii) of the CCS (Pension) Rules, in the context of grant of family pension, must be restricted to an adoption made by a government servant during his/her lifetime and must not be extended to a case of adoption made by a surviving spouse of the government servant after his/her death.
Observing that the said Rule requires that the family member must have a close nexus with the deceased government servant, and must have been dependent on him during his lifetime, the Court has held that a son or daughter adopted by the widow of a deceased government servant, after the death of the government servant, could not be included within the definition of ‘family' under Rule 54(14)(b) of the CCS (Pension) Rules.
However, this is completely different from a case where a child is born to the deceased government servant after his death and such child is covered under the definition of family since such a child would be a posthumous child of the deceased government servant. The entitlement of such a posthumous child is wholly distinct from a child being adopted subsequent to the demise of the government servant by the surviving spouse. This because the deceased government servant would have had no relationship with the adopted child which would have been adopted subsequent to his demise, as opposed to a posthumous child.
Therefore, the definition of the word “family” in relation to a government servant means various categories of persons coming within the nomenclature of the word “family” and all persons who would have had a familial relationship with the government servant during his lifetime. Any other interpretation would lead to abuse of the provision in the matter of grant of family pension.
[Shri Ram Shridhar Chimurkar v. Union of India, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 33, decided on 17.01.2023]
*Judgement authored by: Justice BV Nagarathna
Justice BV Nagarathna: Igniting hope for the first ever woman Chief Justice of India
For Appellant: Advocate K. Sarada Devi
For UOI: ASG Madhvi Goradia Divan