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Observing that in times of a severe pandemic, doctors cannot seek that their vested personal interest be placed above public interest, the Delhi High Court refused to set aside the extension of training period of doctors in their final year of Diplomate of National Board (DNB). [Dr Divyesh J Pathak & Ors vs NBE & Ors]
The judgement was passed by a Single Judge Bench of Justice Asha Menon.
The Petitioners before the Court were resident doctors who were pursuing their final year of the Diplomate of National Board (DNB) from various hospitals and institutions across the country.
On April 4, 2020, the National Board of Examination issued a ‘Public Notice’ stating that the training period of all the DNB students, whose tenures were to end between April 1 to June 30, was extended by a period of six weeks and until further notice.
The Petitioners, inter alia, argued that the Public Notice issued by NBE was unenforceable and was liable to be struck down as NBE had no powers vested in it to vary the training period.
Further, it was submitted that there was discrimination between the first-year and second-year trainee doctors and the final year trainee doctors.
The Petitioners also informed the Court that their professional careers were being compromised by the arbitrary action of NBE as some of the Petitioners had already been offered employment at different hospitals.
NBE and the Central Government (Respondent) submitted the extension of training was fully justified in public interest.
It was claimed that in present crisis of COVID-19, there was a grave strain on public health services and a fresh infusion of DNB candidates was not possible as entrance exam could not be held.
In such a situation, if the final year DNB students were allowed to leave, a vacuum would be created, which would adversely impact the public health system.
The Respondents also contended that due to disruptions on account of COVID-19, training had also been adversely impacted and thus, it was in the interest of the medical profession that the training be extended.
As regards the powers vested with NBE to vary the training period, the Court was informed that the Information Bulletin itself fully empowered NBE to vary its contents.
In view of the submissions made bythe parties, the Court observed the NBE’s function was to standardize not only education and training, but also to evaluate the minimum level of attainment to be achieved by these trainees at the end of the training programmes.
Thus, NBE’s very purpose could be defeated if it was not given the power to vary the duration and content of its training programmes and the method of evaluation of accomplishments of the trainees, in certain situations, the Court said.
Iterating that the doctrine of legitimate expectation and the doctrine of promissory estoppel were not applicable to education, the Court said,
“If we proceed on the assumption that NBE/respondent No.1 could not provide for the duration and content of its programmes and could also not provide for evaluation, a question mark would be placed straightaway on the very first Information Bulletin as having been issued without any power or authority and such an interpretation would lead to unacceptable results. Moreover, there can be no blanket embargo on modification of Information Bulletins with regard to their contents.”, the Court remarked.
The Court then perused the clauses of Information Bulletin to conclude that it was “abundantly clear” that NBE was vested with supervening powers which included the power to extend training period in extraordinary or special circumstances.
The Court further opined that given that first year, second year and third year students were not ‘equals’ as they were at different levels of skills, the plea of discrimination was not made out.
As far as the concern with respect to the individual careers of the doctors were concerned, the Court observed,
While rejecting arguments of malafide, the Court added,
"Today, we are faced with a situation that is unprecedented and with no parallel except for the Spanish Flu epidemic of a hundred years ago. In such conditions, the decision of NBE/respondent No.1 to extend the training of the petitioners can by no stretch be described as malafide or perverse."
Considering that NBE was the expert body on the standard of training and the attainment of the candidates after such training, the Court opined that the decision to extend the period of training could not come under judicial review.
In view of the above, the Petition was dismissed.
Advocate Sahil Tagotra represented the Petitioners.
NBE was represented by ASG Maninder Acharya with Standing Counsel Kirtiman Singh and Advocates Waize Ali Noor, Rohan Anand.
Centre was represented by Standing Counsel Anurag Ahluwalia with Advocates Abhigyan Siddhant, Viplav Acharya.
Read the Judgements: