WITH the reinstatement of 8,069 dismissed employees by the Tamil Nadu government in keeping with the undertaking it gave the Supreme Court on August 6, the month-long uncertainty about their future appeared to have come to an end. As suggested by the Supreme Court, the cases of 6,072 of the dismissed employees, against whom first information reports (FIRs) have been filed, will be considered by three retired Judges of the Madras High Court.
On August 5, when the Supreme Court resumed the hearing on a set of petitions challenging the Madras High Court's dismissal of petitions against the summary dismissal of employees under the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Act, 2002, it advised the Tamil Nadu government to reinstate all but 6,072 of the 14,135 employees who were dismissed from service on July 4 but not reinstated along with 1,56,106 others who were taken back as directed by the apex court in its July 24 order. The 6,072 employees comprise those who were arrested, those who were accused of indulging in violence, and those who were charged with instigating other employees.
Reading out portions of the judgment, the Bench asked the counsel for the State, K.K. Venugopal, to consider 2,749 of the yet-to-be-reinstated employees (2,215 Secretariat employees and 534 officers) as having been placed under suspension, instead of being treated as "dismissed". The government accepted this suggestion.
Earlier, counsel for the State informed the court that out of 1,70,241 employees dismissed, 1,56,106 were already reinstated. Of the rest, the government was prepared to reinstate another 8,063 employees, but not the 6,072 employees, including 2,211 arrested ones and 1,112 others who, counsel said, were involved in instigating other employees to participate in the strike. Senior counsel P. Chidambaram, who appeared for some of the petitioners, told the court that 2,749 employees in this category had not been charged with indulging in violence. It was then that the court suggested that they be treated as "suspended" and not as "dismissed". The court held that representations of the 6,072 employees would be considered by a panel of three retired Judges of the Madras High Court, to be appointed by its Chief Justice within seven days, and disposed of within one month, each of them taking up about 2,000 cases.
The Bench said the Judges would decide the representations without taking into consideration Section 7 (punishment for participation in strike) of the Ordinance and, as far as possible, in accordance with Service Conduct Rules. Stating that the retired Judges' decisions would be binding on the government, the court said that if any employee was aggrieved, he or she could challenge the Judges' decision in an appropriate forum. The Judges, the Bench said, could evolve a common procedure to deal with the representations. The Bench fixed the honorarium of the Judges at Rs.50,000 a month. Although it suggested that the three retired Judges could hold the sittings in Chennai, Madurai and Coimbatore, the Bench made it clear that the places could be decided in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court.
During the earlier hearing, the Bench asked the State government to reconsider its decision to withhold pensionary benefits to retired employees, stating that it was not proper. Venugopal told the court on August 5 that necessary clarification had been sent to the Principal Accountant-General, stating the pension proposals of those employees who retired after July 2 might be processed on the basis of the court directions that the period from July 2 until reinstatement would not constitute a break in service.
At the end of the day, thousands of employees heaved a sigh of relief that they could save their jobs. The State government too was happy that finally it had its way and the "unprecedented" measures it took to suppress the strike were accepted by the Supreme Court. And the controversial TESMA is also safe in the statute book, without being subjected to judicial scrutiny, just as the issues raised by the employees remain unresolved.