Supreme Court: In an appeal filed by the members of the teaching faculty (appellants) in Homeopathic Medical Colleges situated in the State of Kerala, against the Judgment passed by the Kerala High Court, declining the prayer of the appellants for enhancing their age of retirement from 55 years to 60 years by extending the benefit of the Government Order (‘GO') dated 14-01-2010 , which increased the retirement age of Doctors in the Medical category with retrospective effect from 1-05-2009, the division bench of Hima Kohli and Rajesh Bindal, JJ. while upholding the impugned judgment, has held that the retired employees cannot claim a vested right to apply the extended age of retirement to them retrospectively and assume that by virtue of the enhancement in age ordered by the State at a later date, they would be entitled to all the benefits including the monetary benefits flowing from GO on the ground of legitimate expectation.
The State issued a Government Order dated 14-01-2010, recording inter-alia that there was a shortage of qualified and experienced medical faculties in several subjects in Government Medical Colleges in the State and that on account of the age of retirement of the faculty including medical doctors at 55 years, several departments were facing dearth of medical doctors which, was adversely affecting post graduate medical courses. Thus, the retirement age of doctors in Medical Colleges was increased to 65 years. Thereafter, the State Government ordered that the retirement age of the doctors in the medical category under the Medical Education Service be increased to 60 years from the existing 55 years. This order had retrospective effect from 1-5-2009, and it is not applicable for faculties in Dental, Nursing, Pharmacy and Non-Medical categories under Medical Education Service.
Aggrieved by the exclusion of doctors/professors at Government Homeopathic Colleges from the purview of said order, the appellants filed a writ petition praying for extension of the benefit of the said order to Homeopathic Doctors working in Government Homeopathic Colleges.
The Single Judge of the Kerala High Court, after noting that the State Government did not amend Rule 60 (a) or 60 (c) Part (I) of the Kerala Service Rules, 1958 held that the existing rule position as obtained from Rule 60(c) of the Rules, could not be ignored. As the appellants did not challenge the Government Order dated 14-01-2010 and prayed for parity with those covered under the said Government Order, by claiming that it ought to be extended to them as well to enable them to continue in service beyond the normal date of retirement, which was impermissible. Thereafter, the Division Bench observed that since extension of age for the teaching staff of Medical Colleges is a policy decision, it is not open for the High Court to issue any directions to the State to increase the retirement age of the teaching staff of Homeopathic Medical Colleges. Hence, the present appeal was filed.
The Court took note of Rule 60 (a) of the Kerala Service Rules,1958 that is not applicable to the teaching staff for whom a separate provision has been specifically incorporated, i.e., Rule 60(c) that prescribes their age of retirement and classifies them as a separate class in the matter of retirement. Rule 60 (c) prescribes that even if the teaching staff reaches the age of 55 years during an academic year, subject to the conditions stipulated in the said Rule, they will continue in service till the end of the academic year. As per the Court, the object behind carving out this exception for the teaching staff is to safeguard the interest of the students whose studies may not be adversely affected due to the superannuation of a teacher midway through an academic session.
The Court reiterated that the age of retirement is purely a policy matter that lies within the domain of the State Government. It is not for the courts to prescribe a different age of retirement from the one applicable to Government employees under the relevant service Rules and Regulations. These are all matters of policy that engage the State Government. It may even elect to give the benefit of extension of age to a particular class of Government employees while denying the said benefit to others for valid considerations that may include financial implications, administrative considerations, exigencies of service, etc.
The Court said that in the present case, at the time of issuing GO dated 14-01-2010, the reasons for enhancing the age of retirement from 55 years to 60 years was due to the dearth of eligible hands in the middle level cadre for promotion, the fact that many Post Graduate Medical Courses were likely to be adversely affected due to the said reason and also the fact that retention of senior professors in service at Government Medical Colleges would help the State Government to increase the number of Post Graduate seats, in terms of the revised norms circulated by the Medical Council of India.
While considering extension of the age of retirement of Doctors in the Dental faculties under the Medical Education Service, the Court took note of a letter addressed by the Director of Medical Education who stated that some highly qualified members of the Senior Dental faculty were due to retire and their retirement would adversely affect the research students working under them, as also hinder the conduct of some of the ongoing Post Graduate Courses in Government Dental Colleges, the State permitted enhancement of their age from 55 years to 60 years. Similarly, the State decided to enhance the retirement age of the teaching faculty in Ayurveda Colleges and Homeopathic Colleges, however, these three Government orders were prospective, thus denying any relief to the teaching faculties in the Dental, Ayurvedic and Homeopathic streams who had superannuated in the meantime.
The Court said that as the State Government had issued three successive GOs extending the age of retirement of the members of the Dental Faculties, Ayurvedic Faculties and Homeopathic Faculties from 55 years to 60 years, the insistence on the part of the appellants that these G.Os ought to be given retrospective effect, even though there was no clause to that effect inserted therein, cannot be allowed.
The Court said that this decision lies exclusively within the domain of the Executive. It is for the State to take a call as to whether the circumstances demand to extend the age of superannuation in respect of a set of employees or not. It must be assumed that the State would have weighed all the pros and cons before arriving at any decision to grant extension of age.
Thus, the Court held that the appellants cannot claim a vested right to apply the extended age of retirement to them retrospectively and assume that by virtue of the enhancement in age ordered by the State at a later date, they would be entitled to all the benefits including the monetary benefits flowing from GO on the ground of legitimate expectation.
Placing reliance on New Okhla Industrial Development Authority v. B.D. Singhal, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 466 and Monnet Ispat & Energy Ltd. v. Union of India, (2012) 11 SCC 1, wherein it was opined that if a communication issued was a proposal or a mere recommendation, the principle of promissory estoppel will not apply, as for invoking the said principle there must be a promise and based on the said promise, the party concerned ought to have acted to its prejudice. Further , it was held that the doctrine of legitimate expectation cannot have a place when enhancement of the age of superannuation is “a public function” that is governed by the provisions of the Statute and the relevant service regulations. The position is the same in the present case. Thus, the Court upheld the impugned judgment.
[Dr. Prakasan M.P v State of Kerala, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1074, decided on 25-08-2023]
*Judgment Authored by: Justice Hima Kohli