Supreme Court: In the case where the selection process for appointment of Drug Inspectors in the State of Jammu and Kashmir was challenged, the bench of KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna*, JJ has held that having participated in the selection process without any demur or protest, the writ petitioners cannot challenge the same as being tainted with mala fides, merely because they were unsuccessful.
On 05-05-2008, the Jammu and Kashmir Subordinate Services Selection and Recruitment Board in exercise of the powers enshrined under the Jammu and Kashmir Subordinate Services Recruitment Rules, 1992, issued Advertisement inviting applications for filling up 549 vacancies in 20 services.
The said Advertisement invited applications for 72 posts of drug inspectors out of which 42 posts were to be filled from the open merit category; 14 posts were to be filled by Residents of Backward Areas (RBA) and 16 posts were to be filled by various other reserved categories including Other Social Categories (OSC).
Some unsuccessful candidates filed Writ Petition before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court at Jammu, with a prayer to quash the selection of 56 out of the total number selected candidates and to issue a writ in the nature of mandamus commanding the authorities to instead select and appoint the writ petitioners as drug inspectors.
Grounds for challenge
a) Selected candidates had acquired the prescribed qualifications for the post of drug inspector, from universities which were not affiliated with the Pharmacy Council of India. Further, the eligibility criteria enshrined in the Advertisement Notice dated 05-05-2008 was recast vide Notification dated 12-06-2009 and the criterion as regards the obtainment of qualifications from ‘a University recognized and notified by the Central Government’, was omitted.
b) The quorum of the Selection Committee was not complete as the Chairman of the Board being one of the members of the interview committee which conducted the interview process did not participate in the interview process. Further, the expert member of the Interview Committee was not from the field of pharmacy. Instead of making a person member of the Interview Committee who had expertise in the concerned field, the authorities brought a member who had MBBS qualification.
c) Candidates who had a post-graduation degree had been awarded 10 marks and in the viva-voce, such PG candidates had been granted either 18 marks or 20 marks out of 20. Although the writ petitioners had performed exceptionally well in the interview, the authorities had acted in an arbitrary manner while carrying out the selection process.
The process of selection was governed by the 1992 Rules made by the General Administration Department of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir. Rule 9(i) of the said Rules provided that the Chairman of the Board may nominate a committee of “one or more members” of the Board for, inter alia, holding interviews for the purpose of selecting candidates for being appointed to the State Cadre. Under Rule 9(iii), the Chairman may, if he feels necessary associate with the Selection Committee an Expert/Specialist in the discipline in which recruitment is to be made. The first proviso to Rule 9 provides that the selection made by the said Committee shall be approved by the Board before the same is forwarded to the appointing authority.
ii) A three-member Selection Committee constituted by the Chairman of the Board conducted Interviews. Thereafter, the marks awarded by the said Selection Committee in the viva-voce/interview and the marks awarded for the academic qualifications were tabulated for all candidates by way of a Final Award Roll. The Final Award Roll was produced by the Board before the High Court and was also secured by the petitioners through RTI.
iii) Thereafter, the Board approved the Select List prepared by the Selection Committee. The approval letter enclosing the final Select List was signed by all seven members of the Board. Two out of these seven members were members of the Selection Committee along with a subject expert who was appointed under Rule 9(iii). The process of preparing the Select List was as under:
a. Interviews of short-listed candidates were held in a ratio of 1:5.
b. On completion of the interview, the award was sealed by each member in an envelope and handed over to the Board through the Convenor for further process.
c. At the time of initiation of the selection process, the sealed envelopes of the Convenor and Members of the Committee were opened and fed into the computer for calculation and addition of marks, obtained in the interview with the weightage of academic marks as per the criteria framed for the purpose.
d. The basic data input of interview awards and correction in academic merit was received through a pen drive for consolidation and had been fed into the computer by the Chairman himself, and checked by another member of the Board.
e. The entire record of selection had been perused by the Board and was accordingly approved.
f. Select List was prepared on the basis of total marks allocated for academic qualifications as well as marks secured in the interview.
Supreme Court’s Observations
On Selection Process
The Court found it unable to hold that the selection process was mechanical or casual or suffered from irregularities which were so grave or arbitrary in nature so as to justify quashing the entire selection process. It was also unable to trace the requirement of individual rolls being signed and verified by the members of the Selection Board, to any statute or rule.
The Court, hence, held that the Jammu and Kashmir High Court was not justified in quashing and setting aside the entire selection process, more so when 64 candidates including the appellants had been serving on the said post for over a decade.
On the qualification of Board Members
The Court held that a doctor by profession with a Post Graduate degree (MD) and Ph.D. in Pharmacology was in no way underqualified or unsuitable for her role on the Selection Board. In fact, a pharmacologist is more appropriate to interview the candidates for the post of drug inspector.
The Court also took note Rule 9 A which provides that the Chairman may if he feels necessary appoint a specialist in the discipline in which appointment is to be made, as a member of the selection board. Similarly Rule 9 (iii) provides that the Chairman may, if he feels necessary associate with the Selection Committee expert/specialist in the discipline in which recruitment is to be made.
The Court explained that the use of the word ‘may’ would indicate that the Chairman of the Board has discretion in this regard and there is no mandatory requirement to appoint on the selection panel a person having a qualification in pharmacy.
The Court, hence, affirmed the findings of the High Court to this extent.
On recast of eligibility criteria
The Court held that the criteria was recast by increasing the weightage accorded to candidates possessing a Degree in pharmacy or pharmaceutical chemistry and advanced qualifications such as post-graduate degrees, Ph.D etc., with a view to incentivise more qualified persons who had applied for the said posts. Recasting the criteria was only with regard to allocation of marks for the respective educational qualification of the candidates.
“It was with a view to preserve the standards of the selection process and was not motivated by mala fide or oblique motive. Higher the qualification a candidate possessed, higher marks were awarded.”
The Court explained that the minimum marks awarded for educational qualification was 65 and could increase to 80 depending on the higher qualifications of the candidates. The reallocation of marks based on the educational qualification was in recognition of the higher qualification of the candidates which cannot be termed to be arbitrary.
The Court went on to state that any candidate who was aggrieved by the recast of marks would either withdraw his candidature or challenge the Corrigendum at a preliminary stage in the selection process. However, the writ petitioners did not do so. Hence, they cannot be allowed to do so at a later stage.
The Court set aside the judgments of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir dated 18-12- 2015, 06-07-2017 and 29-10- 2021. The Court further made absolute the stay order permitting the successful candidates to continue in service.
[Tajvir Singh Sodhi v State of Jammu and Kashmir, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 344, decided on 28-03-2023]
*Judgment authored by Justice BV Nagarathna
Advocates who appeared in this case :
For Appellants: Senior Advocates Ranjit Kumar, Sanjay Hegde, PS Patwalia and Advocate Shoeb Alam;
For Board: Additional Solicitor General Madhavi Goradia Divan;
For Writ Petitioners: Advocate S. Janani.