No protection to PSU employees from criminal persecution, rules SC

The Supreme Court on Monday held that employees of Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) are not entitled to protection from criminal protection automatically on account of being a ‘public servant’. In doing so, the apex court overruled Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which says that prior sanction from a competent officer was mandatory to prosecute a government servant for alleged criminal act done in discharge of his official duty.

Dismissing an appeal moved by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) against a high court order which had also held that protection of sanction under CrPC was not available to the officers of PSUs, the apex court also said that trial court magistrate should try and complete proceedings in the case within one year.

The case dates back to 2003 when a criminal complaint was filed against BSNL for engaging “unregistered security guards", which was in violation of an agreement the telecommunication company had with Security Guards Board (SGB). The SGB is a department under the Ministry of Labour of the Maharashtra government.

Acting on the complaint filed by SGB, the trial court ordered framing of charges against two officers of BSNL, who belonged to the Indian Telecommunication Service. BSNL appealed against the same in the high court, which dismissed the case and held that “the protection of sanction under Section 197 of CrPC was not available to officers of government companies or public undertakings even if it fell within the definition of ‘State’ under Article 12 of the Constitution”.

The said officers of BSNL had pleaded that as they were officers belonging to the Indian Telecommunication Service, and were “discharging public duty in pursuance of the policy of the central government,” they could be removed by the order of the President of India only. The apex court, however, dismissed this plea and said that since these employees had been later absorbed by BSNL, they could not be granted automatic sanction from persecution. 

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