The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Delhi government’s 2016 decision to cancel the selection process held between 2014-15 by the Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board given the systemic irregularities found in the process (Sachin Kumar & Ors. v. Delhi Subordinate Service Selection Board (DSSSB) & Ors).
A Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah set aside rulings passed by the Delhi High Court and the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) to the contrary, emphasising that recruitment to the public services must command public confidence.
“Recruitment to public services must command public confidence. Persons who are recruited are intended to fulfil public functions associated with the functioning of the Government. Where the entire process is found to be flawed, its cancellation may undoubtedly cause hardship to a few who may not specifically be found to be involved in wrong doing. But that is not sufficient to nullify the ultimate decision to cancel an examination where the nature of the wrong-doing cuts through the entire process so as to seriously impinge upon the legitimacy of the examinations which have been held for recruitment,” the Court ruled.
The Supreme Court noted that the question of whether an entire exam process would stand vitiated will hinge on whether the irregularities in the process are so systemic as to vitiate the sanctity of the process.
Where there is fraud that affects the credibility and legitimacy of the process, the same would stand vitiated. On the other hand, where it is possible to separate candidates who indulged in irregularities from others who have adhered to the rules, the process need not be set aside.
“In such a case, those who are innocent of wrong-doing should not pay a price for those who are actually found to be involved in irregularities,” the Supreme Court noted.
“…. where it is possible to segregate persons, who have indulged in mal-practices and to penalise them for their wrongdoing, it would be unfair to impose the burden of their wrong-doing on those who are free from taint. To treat the innocent and the wrong doers equally by subjecting the former to the consequence of the cancellation of the entire process would be contrary to Article 14 because unequals would then be treated equally”, the judgment further stated.
Having said that, the Supreme Court found that in this case, systemic deficiencies were found, which cast serious doubts on the legitimacy of the entire process of recruitment, involving both Tier I and Tier II examinations. The Court, therefore, opined that the decision to cancel the entire process could not be faulted as irrational or arbitrary.
“The precedents of this Court sufficiently demonstrate that when the credibility of an entire examination stands vitiated by systemic irregularities, the issue then is not about seeking to identify the candidates who are tainted,” the Court explained.
In focus was the recruitment process conducted for appointments to the post of Head Clerk [(Grade 2) (DASS)] in the Government of Delhi, in respect of which an advertisement was issued in 2009 and exams conducted between 2014-15.
On complaints of the process having been tainted with irregularities and malpractices, the government constituted two committees at different points of time to examine the allegations.
The first committee came to the prima facie conclusion that there were serious irregularities, including cheating and impersonation both during the Tier-I screening examination and Tier-II main examination. The systemic irregularities pointed out by the first Committee included the drastic reduction in the number of candidates who appeared for the Tier-I examination, non-issuance of hard copies of admit cards, shortlisting of candidates belonging to a certain geographical area, lack of randomization in the examination centres etc.
The second committee was given a narrower task of discerning of verifying the candidates who were in the zone of consideration, to rule out impersonation. The second Committee ultimately found all such candidates to be verified.
The government decision to annul the entire recruitment process came after the second Committee’s findings.
In view of this, six candidates challenged the decision to annul the recruitment before the CAT. Through two rulings, the CAT set aside the cancellation of recruitment and held that appointments are to be offered to the successful candidates, subject to the ACB investigation that had been initiated by then.
On appeal, the Delhi High Court upheld the CAT’s decision to set aside the cancellation of the DSSSB recruitment process but held that the relief granted would be confined to the six candidates who moved the Tribunal. Further, these six candidates were directed to appear in the Tier-II examination afresh.
The Delhi High Court judgment, in turn, was challenged before the Supreme Court by the Delhi Government, the DSSSB as well various candidates on different aspects.
What the Supreme Court found
The Supreme Court found that both the High Court and the CAT had erred in focusing only on the report of the second committee while deciding to set aside the Delhi government’s decision to quash selection process.
The top court pointed out that the second committee had only confined to examining the issue of impersonation. Other systemic irregularities pinpointed by the first committee remained. As such, the Supreme Court opined that the Delhi Deputy Chief Minster was justified in going beyond the issue of impersonation alone and recommending that the entire process be cancelled.
While the irregularities remaining were sought to be explained and justified by the DSSSB authorities in a bid to assert that the entire recruitment process ought not to be cancelled, the Court responded,
“So long as there is sufficient basis to contend that mass-scale irregularities have occurred, this Court need not indulge in a roving inquiry to rule out all possible explanations and alternative scenarios where such irregularities would be justified.”
The Court, therefore, upheld the Delhi government’s decision to cancel the selection process, while also urging the authorities to take adequate measures to ensure against the recurrence of such irregularities in the future.
“We direct that a comprehensive exercise to re-visit the modalities and safeguards be carried out within a period of two months to ensure that the probity of the recruitment process in future is maintained,” the Court said.
The Constitutional values underlying Article 14 (right to equality) and Article 16 (equality in public employment) mandate that the selection processes conducted by public authorities must be fair, transparent and accountable, the Supreme Court emphasised.
The Bench added since the selection process involves intense competition, there is no dearth of persons who may try to bend the rules to gain an unfair leap in the race. Such irregularities would give rise to misgivings over whether all persons have been given equal access, bringing the sanctity of the selection process under a cloud, the Court cautioned.