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Promotion to Commissioner-level in CBEC - New Year Gift to Appraiser Promotees – Commissioner DPC to be held by December 31– Good News for Direct recruits as well - High Court directs Government to promote those already recommended by DPC held on June 23, 2008

By TIOL News Service

NEW DELHI, NOV 25, 2008 : THIS is the dispute which has caused undue delay in some Additional Commissioners in Customs and Central Excise getting promoted as Commissioners.

The Union of India had prepared a seniority list in 2004 of all the Assistant Commissioners, that is, Assistant Commissioners who came from the stream of direct recruits and those who came by way of promotion from the grade of Appraiser and Superintendent. This seniority list appears to have been the subject matter of a challenge and was struck down. The Union of India also prepared another integrated seniority list published on 28th April, 2005. The integrated 2005 seniority list was operated for making promotions to the post of Joint Commissioner. It appears that today this 2005 seniority list is the only existing or operative seniority list.

In respect of one case taken up by the Madras High Court, judgment was delivered on 21st April, 2006 wherein certain principles were laid down with respect to the fixation of seniority of Appraisers and Superintendents. The decision rendered by the Madras High Court was taken up to the Supreme Court in Chennai Customs Appraising Officers Association v. Union of India and Others - 2008-TIOL-109-SC-SERVICE. The Supreme Court approved the principles laid down by the Madras High Court.

The sum and substance of the decision of the Supreme Court is two fold: firstly, the seniority of Appraisers and Superintendents is required to be redrawn on certain principles; secondly, the seniority of Appraisers and Superintendents is again open till it is redrawn and finalized. The effect of this will, of course, be felt up the ladder.

While litigation on seniority was in full swing in several judicial forums, the Union of India/Central Board of Excise and Customs decided to fill up 48 vacancies in the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise. From the note put up before the Departmental Promotions Committee it appears that the Union of India decided, on the basis of some calculations made by it, that 36 vacancies are to be filled up from the category of directly recruited Assistant Commissioners while 12 vacancies fall to the category of promotee Assistant Commissioners (promoted from the grade of Appraisers and Superintendents). It also transpires from a reading of the note that since there was no dispute about the seniority of the directly recruited Assistant Commissioners, the DPC was requested to make recommendations to fill up only those 36 vacancies. With regard to the 12 vacancies which fell to the category of promotee Assistant Commissioners, the matter was kept in abeyance pending finalization of the inter se seniority of Appraisers and Superintendents. In other words, the integrated seniority list of 2005 was given a partial go by. From the note it also appears that one of the reasons for holding back the filling up of 12 vacancies is that a case for contempt of Court was pending before the Madras High Court (since decided).

The DPC met soon thereafter and made its recommendations on 23rd June, 2008 concerning promotions of directly recruited Assistant Commissioners to the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise. None of the promotee Assistant Commissioners was considered for promotion.

Feeling upset with this situation, the promotee Assistant Commissioners (actually now Additional Commissioners) preferred O.A. No. 1366/2008 before the Principal Bench of the Tribunal. The prayer made by the promotee Assistant Commissioners/Additional Commissioners was for a declaration to the Union of India to follow the draft seniority list of 2005 in its entirety, and without excluding them from consideration. It was also prayed that the proceedings of the DPC held on 23rd June, 2008 be set aside to the extent that the DPC considered the case of persons who were junior to the promotee Assistant Commissioners/Additional Commissioners. The third important prayer was for a direction to the Union of India to hold a review DPC and consider the case of the promotee Assistant Commissioners/Additional Commissioners for promotion to the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise before any of their juniors from the draft 2005 seniority list are considered.

By the impugned order, the Tribunal granted a blanket stay of the recommendations of the DPC with the result that even those directly recruited Assistant Commissioners (now Additional Commissioners) who could be promoted as Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise were injuncted from holding that post. The impugned order passed by the Tribunal on 7th August, 2008 was subsequently modified by another order on 17th October, 2008 whereby the Union of India was permitted to promote those directly recruited Assistant Commissioners to the grade of Commissioner, who were senior to the promotee Assistant Commissioners before the Tribunal.

While there is a partial modification of the impugned order passed by the Tribunal on 7th August, 2008 the substantive grievance raised by the promotee Assistant Commissioners before the Tribunal continues to remain, which is that they were not considered for promotion to the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise.

The High Court observed,

the public interest requires that all the posts of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise should be filled up by the Union of India. There is no doubt that that grade consists of senior posts in the Government of India and it does not serve anybody’s purpose whatsoever if 48 of these posts lie vacant all over the country (as a result of the impugned order). Similarly, it does not serve anybody’s purpose if only 8 out of these 48 posts are filled up (as a result of order dated 17th October, 2008). The more appropriate course of action would be endeavouring to fill up all the 48 posts so that administrative efficiency does not suffer.

It appears inequitable that until the seniority list is finalized on the principles accepted by the Supreme Court (which may take any amount of time), a vacuum should exist in respect of the posts of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise from the promotee Assistant Commissioner category. To avoid such a vacuum, which really does not serve any public purpose, it would be appropriate if the 2005 seniority list is actually given full effect to on an ad-hoc basis, subject to implementation of the orders of the Supreme Court.

Rule 24 of the Indian Customs and Central Excise Service Group ‘A’ Rules, 1987 makes it quite clear that a senior person cannot be ignored for consideration for promotion if his junior is considered. In the present case, there is admittedly no dispute that some persons junior to the promotee Assistant Commissioners fall in the category of directly recruited Assistant Commissioners who have not only been considered for promotion but have actually been selected. This is contrary to the plain language of Rule 24 of the aforesaid Rules.

So the High Court held:

(i) The Union of India should convene a DPC within a period of one month from today and in any case on or before 31st December, 2008 and consider the promotee Appraisers and Superintendents (who are now Additional Commissioners) for promotion to the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise on the basis of the 2005 seniority list adverted to above.

(ii) The Union of India should go ahead and promote those already recommended for promotion to the grade of Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise by the DPC held on 23rd June, 2008 but the promotions so made will be purely ad hoc in view of the Office Memorandum dated 30th March, 1988 which deals with revision of the seniority list and provides that ad hoc arrangements should be made instead of delaying regular promotions. All promotions whether of directly recruited Assistant Commissioners or promotee Assistant Commissioners/Additional Commissioners will be on an ad hoc basis and subject to final orders passed by the Tribunal in O.A.No.1366/2008.

The High Court requested

(i) the Chairman of the Central Administrative Tribunal to look into the matter and transfer cases similar to the present one pending in any other Bench of the Tribunal to one central place so that there is no conflict of decisions. This is only a request and not a direction.

(ii) the Bench hearing O.A.No.1366/2008 to expedite the disposal of the Original Application pending before it. We have no doubt that all the parties involved in this litigation will fully co-operate with the Tribunal for an early resolution of the dispute.

(See 2008-TIOL-577-HC-DEL-SERVICE in 'Service case laws' in Pitara + 2008-TIOL-577-HC-DEL-SERVICE in 'Legal Corner')

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