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The Supreme Court denied a freedom fighter's pension claim, ruling that the eligibility criteria has no infirmities.
The Supreme Court recently highlighted that while providing a relaxation to a particular category for claiming benefits under a Scheme, the ones not included in that category could not claim violation of fundamental rights.
Having held thus, the Court allowed an appeal by the Government of India against an order of the Bombay High Court which had allowed the claim of a freedom fighter for pension under the Swatantrata Sainik Samman Pension Scheme, 1980.
The Court explained the difference between the eligibility norms of the Central and State Schemes and how being eligible under one could not inherently mean being eligible under the other.
The respondent freedom fighter had challenged the notification issued by the Government of India as well as its orders rejecting his claim for pension under the 1980 Scheme before the High Court.
His claim for pension was denied by the Government on the grounds that he failed to comply with the eligibility criterion and the cut-off date to apply for the said Scheme.
The Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court had allowed the petition and directed grant of pension under the Scheme. The Centre then approached the Supreme Court in appeal.
The judgment on appeal was delivered on February 11 by a Division Bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Justice Navin Sinha.
The Supreme Court held that the eligibility criterion under the Central and State Pension Scheme were entirely different from each other. The creation of subsequent conditions regarding eligibility could not be considered as a violation of the right to equality of the respondent.
While representing the Government of India, learned ASG Vikramjit Banerjee submitted that the participants of Goa Liberation Movement, Phase-II (of which the respondent was part) could avail of the Scheme on the condition that they had received State Pension as on August 1, 2002. It was submitted that issue of fixation of date was deliberated and consciously included in the Scheme.
He further submitted,
“The Government of India did not commit an error in rejecting the claim of the respondent No.1. High Court has erred in holding that cut-off date 01.08.2002 has no relevance.”
Counsel representing the aggrieved freedom fighter, Advocate Mugdha Pande, while refuting the submissions of the appellant, submitted that-
“The respondent No.1 had been issued Identity Card of freedom fighter in the year 1984 and he had made an application for grant of State Pension on 28.07.2001 which although was rejected in December 2002 but subsequently State itself having granted pension w.e.f. 01.12.2007, the respondent No.1 is eligible for grant of SSS Pension.
No rationale for fixing cut-off date 01.08.2002 for grant of SSS Pension to participants of Goa Liberation Movement, Phase-II and there is no nexus with the object sought to be achieved. All freedom fighters who are in receipt of State Pension are eligible to SSSP Scheme.”
The State of Goa, represented by Advocate Pratap Venugopal, clarified that the claim of respondent was rejected in December 2002 after due inquiry. A subsequent application was filed after re-opening of the State Pension Scheme in year 2003. The grant of State Pension to twenty-two freedom fighters including the respondent came into effect from December 1, 2007.
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the respondent was entitled for grant of SSS Pension as per the Scheme and whether the High Court had taken a correct decision in allowing the writ petition of respondent. The Court further considered whether the cut-off date is a valid condition for grant of pension under the Scheme.
The Supreme Court, while analyzing the eligibility criterion under the SSSP Scheme and the Goa Rules, 1973 and 1988, held:
“The eligibility under the SSSP Scheme, 1980 is, thus, entirely different from the eligibilities for grant of pension under the Goa Rules, 1973 and 1988. The applicability of SSSP Scheme, 1980 was also extended to other movements apart from mainstream of the liberation struggle of the country.”
The Court answered the questions raised by the counsel for the respondent regarding the rationale behind fixing cut-off date by opining,
“The scheme cannot be kept open ended and the date fixed to consider only those freedom fighters eligible for relaxation under SSSP Scheme who had taken part in second phase of Goa Liberation Movement(1954-55) and who had already been sanctioned the freedom fighters pension by the concerned State Government before a fixed date such as 01.08.2002.”
The Supreme Court explained the intelligible differentia between the eligibility norms by saying that,
“The eligibility under the SSSP Scheme, 1980, is entirely different from the eligibility of the State pension under the Goa Rules...
When a benefit is granted in relaxation of Scheme, it is open for the Government to put conditions for eligibility.”
While dealing with the submission of the respondent that the cut-off date had no nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the Scheme, the Court held,
“We are thus of the view that the Scheme dated 17.02.2003 has intelligible differentia and also nexus with the object. When relaxation is granted to a limited category, the others, who are not covered by the Scheme cannot claim any violation of right of equality. Right of equality can be claimed only by those who fulfil the eligibilities under the SSSP Scheme, 1980.”
Although the Government of India had failed to file a reply and bring the relevant facts and materials on record before the High Court, when given an opportunity to do the same by the Supreme Court, they were brought on record by way of additional affidavit. The appeal was decided after taking into consideration these relevant submissions.
The Supreme Court held that there was no error in rejecting the claim of respondent and the Scheme did not suffer from any infirmity. Hence, the appeal was allowed.
[Read the judgement here]