Duty of Public Authority under article 14 f Constitution:
It is clear from the Board‟s conduct that it never responded to the letters written by Asiatic Steel; at least, no reply has been placed on record. Even Asiatic Steel‟s request for permission to carry-out the necessary clearance work at the cost of the board, was not responded to-either positively or negatively. Further, whenever any bidder approached the court complaining that the plot allotted was unusable, the Board decided, mostly contemporaneously, to refund the amount, even with interest. In the case of Asiatic Steel, however, when the demand was made for refund on 19.05.1998, the Board did not act,forcing the company to approach the court, firstly through a civil suit which was later withdrawn, and then in a writ petition.
Silence of public authority:
In the opinion of this court, the Board‟s complete silence in responding to Asiatic Steel’s demand for refund, coupled with the absence of any material placed on record by it suggesting that the complaints had no substance leaves it vulnerable to the charge of complete arbitrariness. The Board‟s conductor indifference in regard to the refund sought (in respect of which there was no meaningful argument on its part before the High Court) can be only on the premise that it wished the parties to approach the court, till a decision could be taken to refund the amounts received by it.
In this court‟s considered view, the Board’s action is entirely unacceptable. As a public body charged to uphold the rule of law, its conduct had to be fair and not arbitrary. If it had any meaningful justification for withholding the amount received from Asiatic Steel, such justification has not been highlighted ever. On the other hand, its conduct reveals that it wished that the parties should approach the court, before it took a decision. This behavior of deliberate inaction to force a citizen or a commercial concern to approach the court, rather than take a decision, justified on the anvil of reason (in the present case, a decision to refund) means that the Board acted in a discriminatory manner.
Long ago, in Dilbagh Rai Jarry v.Union of India (4 (1974) 3 SCC 5545) this court had quoted from a decision of the Kerala High Court, approvingly:
“25. … But it must be remembered that the State is no ordinary party trying to win a case against one of its own citizens by hook or by crook; for the State’s interest is to meet honest claims, vindicate a substantial defence and never to score a technical point or overreach a weaker party to avoid a just liability or secure an unfair advantage, simply because legal devices provide such an opportunity. The State is a virtuous litigant and looks with unconcern on immoral forensic successes so that if on the merits the case is weak, Government shows a willingness to settle the dispute regardless of prestige and other lesser motivations which move private parties to fight in court. The layout on litigation costs and executive time by the State and its agencies is so staggering these days because of the large amount of litigation in which it is involved that a positive and wholesome policy of cutting back on the volume of law suits by the twin methods of not being tempted into forensic showdowns where a reasonable adjustment is feasible and ever offering to extinguish a pending proceeding on just terms, giving the legal mentors of Government some initiative and authority in this behalf.”(in P.P. Abubackerv.Union of India, AIR 1972 Ker 103)
Again, in Gurgaon Gramin Bank v.Khazani6this court stated that:
“2. The number of litigations in our country is on the rise, for small and trivial matters, people and sometimes the Central and the State Governments and their instrumentalities like banks, nationalised or private, come to courts may be due to ego clash or to save the officers’ skin. The judicial system is overburdened which naturally causes delay in adjudication of disputes. Mediation Centres opened in various parts of our country have, to some extent, eased the burden of the courts but we are still in the tunnel and the light is far away. On more than one occasion, this Court has reminded the Central Government, the State Governments and other instrumentalities as well as to the various banking institutions to take earnest efforts to resolve the disputes at their end. At times, some give-and-take attitude should be adopted or both will sink. Unless serious questions of law of general importance arise for consideration or a question which affects a large number of persons or the stakes are very high, the courts’ jurisdiction cannot be invoked for resolution of small and trivial matters. We are really disturbed by the manner in which those types of matters are being brought to courts even at the level of the Supreme Court of India and this case falls in that category.”(2012 (8) SCC 781)
Final Conclusion by Supreme Court
In this case, conduct of the Board betrays a callous and indifferent attitude, which in effect is that if Asiatic Steel wished for its money to be returned, it had to approach the court. This was despite its knowledge that at least three other identically placed entities had asked for return of money and, upon approaching the court, were refunded the amounts given by them promptly. In view of these facts, nothing prevented the Board from deciding to refund the amount, without forcing Asiatic Steel to approach the court.
[Source: CEO, Gujarat Maritime Board v. Asiatic Steel Industries decided by SC on 24th November 2020]
Editors’ Note: The Court may have lambasted the Public Authority but it is unlikely to have any effect till the Officers concerned who refused to take decision are personally made responsible. Without accountability, the bureaucracy keeps moving in same circle again and again.