10 Feb 2011

Cut-off dates valid unless fixed capriciously: Supreme Court

Holding that even though fixation of cut-off date would be, in all cases, to some extent somewhat arbitrary, that alone would not be sufficient to hold it violative of the equality doctrine under Article 14 of the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court in a recent decision [National Council for Teacher Education v. Shri Shyam Shiksha Prashikshan Sansthan] declared that cut-off dates would not be declared illegal unless "it is shown to be capricious or whimsical in the circumstances". The Court held that a reasonable degree of latitude was required to be provided to the law-makers and thus when a cut-off date was fixed, it was ordinarily not to be interfered with by the judiciary. 

The Bench observed inter alia as under;
15. We have given serious thought to the arguments of the learned counsel. We shall first deal with the question whether the cut off dates specified in clauses (4) and (5) of Regulation 5 for submission of application to the Regional Committee, processing thereof and communication of the final decision on the issue of recognition are arbitrary, discriminatory, irrational and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. 
16. Article 14 forbids class legislation but permits reasonable classification provided that it is founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from those that are left out of the group and the differentia has a rational nexus to the object sought to be achieved by the legislation in question. In re the Special Courts Bill, 1978 (1979) 1 SCC 380, Chandrachud, C.J., speaking for majority of the Court adverted to large number of judicial precedents involving interpretation of Article 14 and culled out several propositions including the following:
“(2) The State, in the exercise of its governmental power, has of necessity to make laws operating differently on different groups or classes of persons within its territory to attain particular ends in giving effect to its policies, and it must possess for that purpose large powers of distinguishing and classifying persons or things to be subjected to such laws.
(3) The constitutional command to the State to afford equal protection of its laws sets a goal not attainable by the invention and application of a precise formula. Therefore, classification need not be constituted by an exact or scientific exclusion or inclusion of persons or things. The courts should not insist on delusive exactness or apply doctrinaire tests for determining the validity of classification in any given case. Classification is justified if it is not palpably arbitrary.
(4) The principle underlying the guarantee of Article 14 is not that the same rules of law should be applicable to all persons within the Indian territory or that the same remedies should be made available to them irrespective of differences of circumstances. It only means that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed. Equal laws would have to be applied to all in the same situation, and there should be no discrimination between one person and another if as regards the subject-matter of the legislation their position is substantially the same. 
(5) By the process of classification, the State has the power of determining who should be regarded as a class for purposes of legislation and in relation to a law enacted on a particular subject. This power, no doubt, in some degree is likely to produce some inequality; but if a law deals with the liberties of a number of well defined classes, it is not open to the charge of denial of equal protection on the ground that it has no application to other persons. Classification thus means segregation in classes which have a systematic relation, usually found in common properties and characteristics. It postulates a rational basis and does not mean herding together of certain persons and classes arbitrarily.
(6) The law can make and set apart the classes according to the needs and exigencies of the society and as suggested by experience. It can recognise even degree of evil, but the classification should never be arbitrary, artificial or evasive.
(7) The classification must not be arbitrary but must be rational, that is to say, it must not only be based on some qualities or characteristics which are to be found in all the persons grouped together and not in others who are left out but those qualities or characteristics must have a reasonable relation to the object of the legislation. In order to pass the test, two conditions must be fulfilled, namely, (1) that the classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes those that are grouped together from others and (2) that that differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the Act.”
17. In Union of India v. Parameswaran Match Works (1975) 1 SCC 305, this Court was called upon to examine whether clause (b) of notification No.205/67-CE dated 4.9.1967 issued by the Government of India, Ministry of Finance prescribing concessional rate of duty in respect of units engaged in manufacture of match boxes, which were certified as such by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission or units set up in the cooperative sector was discriminatory and violative of Article 14 on the ground that the cut off date i.e. 21.7.1967 specified in the notification was arbitrary. The High Court of Madras allowed the writ petition filed by the respondents and struck down the cut off date by observing that the classification of the units engaged in the manufacturing of match boxes was irrational and arbitrary. While reversing the order of the High Court, this Court referred to the judgment in Louisville Gas Co. v. Alabama Power Co. (1927) 240 US 30 and held:
“We do not think that the reasoning of the High Court is correct. It may be noted that it was by the proviso in the notification dated July 21, 1967 that it was made necessary that a declaration should be filed by a manufacturer that the total clearance from the factory during a financial year is not estimated to exceed 75 million matches in order to earn the concessional rate of Rs 3.75 per gross boxes of 50 matches each. The proviso, however, did not say, when the declaration should be filed. The purpose behind that proviso was to enable only bona fide small manufacturers of matches to earn the concessional rate of duty by filing the declaration. All small manufacturers whose estimated clearance was less than 75 million matches would have availed themselves of the opportunity by making the declaration as early as possible as they would become entitled to the concessional rate of duty on their clearance from time to time. It is difficult to imagine that any manufacturer whose estimated total clearance during the financial year did not exceed 75 million matches would have failed to avail of the concessional rate on their clearances by filing the declaration at the earliest possible date. As already stated, the respondent filed its application for licence on September 5, 1967 and made the declaration on that date. The concessional rate of duty was intended for small bona fide units who were in the field when the notification dated September 4, 1967 was issued; the concessional rate was not intended to benefit the large units which had split up into smaller units to earn the concession. The tendency towards fragmentation of the bigger units into smaller ones in order to earn the concessional rate of duty has been noted by the Tariff Commission in its report [see the extract from the report given at p. 500 (SCC, p. 431) in M. Match Works v. Assistant Collector, Central Excise]. The whole object of the notification dated September 4, 1967 was to prevent further fragmentation of the bigger units  into smaller ones in order to get the concessional rate of duty intended for the smaller units and thus defeat the purpose which the Government had in view. In other words, the purpose of the notification was to prevent the larger units who were producing and clearing more than 100 million matches in the financial year 1967-68 and who could not have made the declaration, from splitting up into smaller units in order to avail of the concessional rate of duty by making the declaration subsequently. To achieve that purpose, the Government chose September 4, 1967, as the date before which the declaration should be filed. There can be no doubt that any date chosen for the purpose would, to a certain extent, be arbitrary. That is inevitable.
The concessional rate of duty can be availed of only by those who satisfy the conditions which have been laid down under the notification. The respondent was not a manufacturer before September 4, 1967 as it had applied for licence only on September 5, 1967 and it could not have made a declaration before September 4, 1967 that its total clearance for the financial year 1967-68 is not estimated to exceed 75 million matches. In the matter of granting concession or exemption from tax, the Government has a wide latitude of discretion. It need not give exemption or concession to everyone in order that it may grant the same to some. As we said, the object of granting the concessional rate of duty was to protect the smaller units in the industry from the competition by the larger ones and that object would have been frustrated, if, by adopting the device of fragmentation, the larger units could become the ultimate beneficiaries of the bounty. That a classification can be founded on a particular date and yet be reasonable, has been held by this Court in several decisions. The choice of a date as a basis for classification cannot always be dubbed as arbitrary even if no particular reason is forthcoming for the choice unless it is shown to be capricious or whimsical in the circumstances. When it is seen that a line or a point there must be and there is no mathematical or logical way of fixing it precisely, the decision of the legislature or its delegate must be accepted unless we can say that it is very wide off the reasonable mark.” 
18. The ratio of the aforementioned judgment was reiterated by the Constitution Bench in D.G. Gose and Co. (Agents) (P) Ltd. v. State of Kerala (1980) 2 SCC 410. One of the several issues considered in that case was whether the tax imposed under Kerala Building Tax Act, 1975 with retrospective effect from 1.4.1973 was discriminatory and violative of Article 14. The Constitution Bench referred to the judgment in Union of India v. Parameswaran Match Works (supra) and observed: 
“It has not been shown in this case how it could be said that the date (April 1, 1973) for the levy of the tax was wide of the reasonable mark. On the other hand it would appear from the brief narration of the historical background of the Act that the State legislature had imposed the building tax under the Kerala Building Tax Act, 1961, which came into force on March 2, 1961, and when that Act was finally struck down as unconstitutional by this Court’s decision dated August 13, 1968, the intention to introduce a fresh Bill for the levy was made clear in the budget speech of 1970-71. It will be recalled that the Bill was published in June 1973 and it was stated there that the Act would be brought into force from April 1, 1970. The Bill was introduced in the Assembly on July 5, 1973. The Select Committee however recommended that it may be brought into force from April 1, 1973. Two Ordinances were promulgated to give effect to the provisions of the Bill. The Bill was passed soon after and received the Governor’s assent on April 2, 1975. It cannot therefore be said with any justification that in choosing April 1, 1973 as the date for the levy of the tax, the legislature acted unreasonably, or that it was “wide of the reasonable mark.”
19. In State of Bihar v. Ramjee Prasad (1990) 3 SCC 368, this Court reversed the judgment of the Patna High Court which had struck down the cut off date fixed for receipt of the application. After adverting to the judgments in Union of India v. Parameswaran Match Works (supra) and Uttar Pradesh Mahavidyalaya Tadarth Shikshak Niyamitikaran Abhiyan Samiti, Varanasi v. State of U.P. (1987) 2 SCC 453, the Court observed:
“In the present case as pointed out earlier the past practice was to fix the last date for receipt of applications a month or one and a half months after the date of actual publication of the advertisement. Following the past practice the State Government fixed the last date for receipt of applications as January 31, 1988. Those who had completed the required experience of three years by that date were, therefore, eligible to apply for the posts in question. The respondents and some of the intervenors who were not completing the required experience by that date, therefore, challenged the fixation of the last date as arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. It is obvious that in fixing the last date as January 31, 1988 the State Government had only followed the past practice and if the High Court’s attention had been invited to this fact it would perhaps have refused to interfere since its interference is based on the erroneous belief that the past practice was to fix June 30 of the relevant year as the last date for receipt of applications. Except for leaning on a past practice the High Court has not assigned any reasons for its choice of the date. As pointed out by this Court the choice of date cannot be dubbed as arbitrary even if no particular reason is forthcoming for the same unless it is shown to be capricious or whimsical or wide off the reasonable mark. The choice of the date for advertising the posts had to depend on several factors, e.g. the number of vacancies in different disciplines, the need to fill up the posts, the availability of candidates, etc. It is not the case of anyone that experienced candidates were not available in sufficient numbers on the cut-off date. Merely because the respondents and some others would qualify for appointment if the last date for receipt of applications is shifted from January 31, 1988 to June 30, 1988 is no reason for dubbing the earlier date as arbitrary or irrational.”
20. The same view was reiterated in Dr. Sushma Sharma v. State of Rajasthan (1985) Supp. SCC 45, University Grants Commission v. Sadhana Chaudhary (1996) 10 SCC 536, Ramrao v. All India Backward Class Bank Employees Welfare Association (2004) 2 SCC 76 and State of Punjab v. Amar Nath Goyal (2005) 6 SCC 754

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