Coming to aid of 12,000 civilian porters working for Indian Army in high risk and active field areas like Rajouri, Jammu and Poonch, the Supreme Court today directed the Centre to finalise a scheme having better pay, medical facilities, enhanced compensation and a severance grant higher than the Rs 50,000 proposed by the government.
The apex court also asked the Centre to bear in mind the large pool of porters while enhancing the proportion of the sanctioned strength for regularisation, so that the benefit of security of tenure is made available to a reasonable number of persons who complete a stipulated minimum tenure of service.
A bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice A M Khanwilkar issued the directions while noting that though the porters belong to the poorest strata of the society and may not even possess educational qualifications, they provide valuable support to the srmy and are an integral part of operations in border areas.
"The value addition which they provide to the Indian Army in terms of their knowledge of conditions makes them a sure footed ally in hostile conditions. To look at their work from a metro-centric lens is to miss the wood for the trees. They work, albeit as casual labour, for long years with little regard of safety.
"Faced with disability, injury and many times death, their families have virtually no social security. Such a situation cannot be contemplated having regard to the mandate in Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution," the bench said in its 11-page judgement which directed that these suggestions be included in the Centre's proposed scheme for the porters.
The court ordered that the scheme be finalised within three months and disposed of the pleas moved by 29 porters who had contended that they were not treated as regular employees and have been denied the benefit of minimum pay-scales despite long years of service in arduous conditions prevalent in a difficult terrain.
The bench said the scheme proposed by the Centre, during pendency of the proceedings, "marks a welcome improvement over the present conditions of porters", as it contains provisions for maintenance of records of hiring, paid weekly and national holidays, hours of work and a six-day week, medical facilities in emergent circumstances, compensation in the event of death or permanent disability, canteen services, insurance cover, and a one-time financial grant on severance.
It, however, was of the view that the payment of minimum wages at the prevailing rates "requires a fresh look so that the porters are paid wages at par with the lowest pay-scale applicable to multi-tasking staff".
The apex court further said that "if there are provisions enabling additional payments to be made (either by way of allowances or otherwise) for work in high-altitude areas or in high risk/active field areas, such payments shall be allowed under the scheme".
It said the scheme "must provide for regular medical facilities including in the case of injury or disability and the amount of compensation in the case of death or permanent disability should also be looked at afresh and suitably enhanced".
It noted that the present scheme provides for an interim relief of Rs 20,000 to be sanctioned at the discretion of the local formation commander and a maximum payment of Rs two lakhs, as applicable under the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923, is contemplated.
"The provision for compensation shall be enhanced to provide for dignified payments in the event of death or disability," the court said.
On the issue of one-time severance grant, the court termed as "measly" the amount of Rs 50,000 provided under the proposed scheme, subject to a minimum service of ten years, and said that it "does not fulfil the mandate of fairness, on the part of the State".
"We direct that the terminal benefits should be enhanced so as to provide for compensation not less than at a rate computed at fifteen days' salary for every completed year of service," it said and added, "the Union government shall bear in mind these directions in the course of the finalisation of the scheme which shall be done within the next three months".
The court said that during the proceedings, the Centre had indicated that the formulation of a proposal for regularisation was under consideration.
"It has also been stated during the course of the submissions that the proposal may envisage regularising army porters who have rendered service for a stipulated period upto five per cent of the sanctioned strength of multi-tasking staff. "Since the pool of porters is large, the number of persons who may benefit from such a proposal every year may be minimal. This is an aspect which should be duly borne in mind while enhancing the proportion of the sanctioned strength for regularisation in order that the benefit of security of tenure is made available to a reasonable proportion of persons who complete a stipulated minimum tenure of service," the court said.