It is salutary to get a definite ruling. Even if it took from 1984 till now, to be told it is not illegal to dismiss an employee for consistently sleeping at the workplace. In a society which has a long-standing problem with efficient commitment at the workplace, on schedules and on quality of delivery, it is good that adherence to some basic norms on work mores is considered desirable. And that discipline on common-sensical contractual expectations isn’t legally out of place.
That said, it is amazing that it took close to 22 years to get a definite verdict. The employee in question, Uttam Nakate, was found asleep at 11:40 in the morning, at his factory workplace. It was the fourth occasion this had happened and he’d got off till then with minor punishment. The company began disciplinary proceedings under the Industrial Employment Act, 1946 and after five months, in January 1984, found him guilty and dismissed him from service. Nakate appealed to the state (Maharashtra) labour court, contending the dismissal came under the category of an unfair trade practice. The labour court directed he be reinstated, with 50% back wages.
The company appealed to an industrial tribunal, which struck down the court order. Nakate proceeded to the Bombay High Court, which directed payment of Rs 2.5 lakh to Nakate and his reinstatement. From there, it went to the Supreme Court. Where two judges pondered and decided “we cannot say the quantum of punishment imposed was wholly disproportionate to his act of misconduct.”
The fact that we finally got a sound judgement shows we do have a system of checks and balances for those with the stamina to travel the course. But the more important point is why did our judges take 22 years to decide the set of appeals? How long, then, will our court system take to handle more complex issues? One reason investors hesitate to put their money into India is the problem of getting any dispute adjudicated and enforced in a reasonable time. The Nakate case shows those fears are very real. Worse, what does it say about our system’s ability to deliver simple and swift justice to the average Indian?