Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Only the Chief Justice of India can order a probe by any investigative agency against the member (judicial) of the tribunal on the advice of the central government — in this case, the Railways Ministry.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Updated: January 16, 2018
SCRUTINY OF nearly 1,000 orders awarding compensation to victims by the Railway Claims Tribunal (RCT) in Patna has thrown up “disturbing evidence” of alleged irregularities in disbursement of around Rs 50 crore between 2015 and 2017, according to an internal probe by the tribunal’s principal bench in Delhi.

In a letter sent to the Railway Ministry last Thursday, the principal bench’s chairman, Justice (retired) K Kannan, recommended a probe by the CBI against the tribunal’s Patna bench member (judicial), R K Mittal, who passed the compensation orders that are under the scanner. Sources told The Indian Express that Ashwani Lohani, chairman, Railway Board, is also in favour of a CBI investigation.

Last year, Mittal was transferred from Patna to the RCT’s Ranchi bench, and on Friday, shifted to the tribunal’s Ernakulam bench. When contacted by The Indian Express, Mittal denied all allegations of wrongdoing. “If there is any wrongdoing found in any particular case, I can clarify that the wrongdoing is either on part of the party or the railways. There is no wrongdoing in the working of the court,” he said.

However, Kannan’s letter to Lohani states: “I have come by disturbing evidence of what I had suspicions about… The inquiry…may be directed at examination of the benefit in whatever fashion accrued to the Member (Judicial), the extent of benefit which must come to the lawyers….the persons who are the actual beneficiaries of the transfers made to the particular bank accounts…”

The findings of the internal investigation, detailed in Kannan’s letter, show that Mittal was allegedly “complicit” with a group of five lawyers in Patna who represented 91 per cent of all the applicants during May 2015 to August 2017 to commit “deliberate fraud” on the Railways.

One of the key findings is that Mittal allegedly issued 950 “warrants of recovery” directly to the Reserve Bank of India, Patna, ordering it to deduct the money claimed from the Railways’ account. The report states that the money allegedly went to bank accounts, “which were not verified to be the bank accounts as set forth in applications” of the victims and families in documents filed with the RCT.

In 99 per cent of the 950 cases, the money went into bank accounts opened in Patna by lawyers appearing for the claimants, claims the report. Those accounts, the findings show, were allegedly closed soon after withdrawing the entire amounts, “thereby allowing the lawyers to have complete control over the accounts”.

“It is anybody’s guess if the accounts were actually opened only by applicants, since it is apprehended that the persons signed as identified by lawyers may not be parties at all,” Kannan’s letter states.

The letter also points out that between October 2015 and March 2017, Mittal was occupying the bench as a single member since the post of member (technical) — usually a former Railway officer — was vacant.

The principal bench also pointed to 74 cases of double payments wherein both RBI, Patna, and the East Central Railway deposited the claim amounts to the accounts of claimants. In this case, the ministry had intervened and made the zonal railway recover Rs 5 crore — its share of the payments from those accounts. Sources say there are 200 such cases.

In its intervention report in December, reviewed by The Indian Express, the ministry has noted that Mittal’s compensation orders carried “an enhanced rate of interest ranging from 9 per cent to 12 per cent” over and above the Supreme Court verdict.

Since 2009, as per a pronouncement by the Supreme Court, the Tribunal also awards a simple rate of interest, such as 6 per cent, on the amounts calculated from the date of filing of the case to the date of order of award. Thereafter, a rate of 9 per cent is charged till the date of actual payment. Usually, it takes four years for the claims to be awarded. It is the zonal railways concerned that issues the cheques or transfers the compensation money electronically. Railways spends around Rs 200 crore per year on these claims. Since tribunals are quasi-judicial courts, their orders are not usually challenged.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Mittal said: “There is not even 1 per cent of irregularity in the working of the court. The court was working fast, the Railways was working very slow in giving the claim amounts. So, the court was constrained to issue execution orders to RBI. There is a provision in law.”

Asked about the double payments, Mittal placed the blame on the Railways. “Before deducting money from the account, the RBI gives 15 days’ notice to the Railways. Double payment happened because railway officers sat on it. Anyway, I hear all those payments have been recovered now.”

Defending a high rate of interest to claims, Mittal referred to a rate of 9 per cent set in judgments by high courts in Patna and Jharkhand.

Established through an Act of Parliament in 1987, the Railway Claims Tribunal are courts that determine claims against Railways for loss, destruction, damage, deterioration and non-delivery of goods and for death or injuries or loss to a passenger in a railway accident. Across India, there are 19 benches of the tribunal.

In case of death in a train accident, the passenger’s family gets Rs 8 lakh. It’s the same in case of permanent disability due to accident or what is defined as “untoward incident” in the Act, like falling off a moving train, etc. Thereafter, there are 36 categories of injuries on the basis of which compensation claims are awarded by the tribunal.

Only the Chief Justice of India can order a probe by any investigative agency against the member (judicial) of the tribunal on the advice of the central government — in this case, the Railways Ministry.


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