Inspector (Mahila) Ravina v Union of India W.P.(C) 4525/2014, 6 August 2015
In Inspector (Mahila) Ravina v Union of India, the High Court of Delhi held that the Central Reserve Police Force’s (CRPF) denial of promotion to a CRPF female inspector owing to her pregnancy violated the individual’s right to personal liberty and equality in matters of public employment under the Constitution of India (Constitution).
In July and August 2011, Inspector (Mahila) Ravina (Petitioner) was unable to attend a promotional course because she was pregnant. She subsequently completed the promotional course in 2012, and thus fulfilled the relevant eligibility requirements for promotion to Assistant Commandant.
However, in 2014 the CRPF released its promotional list, and the Petitioner’s name was not included. She consequently lost her seniority vis-à-vis her batch mates and juniors. When the Petitioner filed a representation before the CRPF, she was informed that she had lost her seniority because she had “shown an unwillingness to attend the [initial] promotional course [in 2011]”.
The Petitioner appealed to the High Court, arguing that her seniority should be restored on compassionate grounds given her pregnancy. However, the CRPF contended that in such circumstances the CRPF Rules dictated that only the Petitioner’s “chance” (to complete the course) was preserved, but not her seniority. The primary issue before the High Court was whether the Petitioner’s pregnancy amounted to “unwillingness” to complete the required promotional course, and whether she was entitled to a relaxation of the CRPF Rules to claim seniority with her batch mates.
The High Court held that it was ‘indefensible’ to conclude that the Petitioner’s pregnancy amounted to an unwillingness to complete the promotional course, and directed the CRPF to restore the Petitioner’s seniority. In reaching this decision, the High Court emphasised the Petitioner’s right to personal liberty as enshrined by Article 21 of the Constitution.
According to the Court, the right to reproduction and child rearing is an essential facet of Article 21, and the State has a responsibility to ensure that women can freely exercise their choice to reproduce. The court noted that such a responsibility is supported by a number of other Articles in the Constitution (most notably Articles 42 and 45 which respectively provide for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief and the provision of early childhood care by the State) as well as Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which details the special protection that should be accorded to mothers during child birth).
In the court’s view, the choice exercised by a female employee to become a parent stands on “an entirely different footing” to other scenarios where an employee demonstrates a “plain unwillingness” to undertake the promotional course. Accordingly, any suggestion by the CRPF that a women’s decision to bear a child should be treated as an “unwillingness” to participate in the course would be a clear violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.
The High Court also considered the Petitioner’s denial of seniority benefits an infraction of Articles 16(1) and (2) of the Constitution, which afford equality to all in matters of public employment regardless of sex. In this respect, the Court noted that, as between a male and female officer, there is no difference in the pre-promotional program which both have to undergo. According to the Court, the CRPF’s seemingly “neutral” reason for denying the Petitioner’s seniority benefits (being her unwillingness to attend the promotional course) was in fact discriminatory, because the Petitioner’s “unwillingness” stemmed from her “inability” to complete the course due to her pregnancy.
It was relevant that the promotional course was held in Coimbatore. In the Court’s view, it was not feasible for an expecting mother to be travelling and living in a remote area without medical support. This was particularly so given that the CRPF had acknowledged the Petitioner’s vulnerable medical state during her pregnancy. Accordingly, the Court held that the CRPF should have taken into consideration the Petitioner’s pregnancy when assessing her “willingness” to participate in the promotional course.
The decision provides important clarity on the nature and scope of Article 21 of the Constitution. In particular, the decision makes it clear that an individual’s right to personal liberty under Article 21 includes the right to reproduce and bear children. It also makes it clear that Article 21 may be violated not only through coercive State action, but also where State action places an individual in a position where they must choose between an availing State benefit and exercising a constitutional right. In the present case, the CRPFs action effectively placed the Petitioner in a position where she was forced to choose between having a child or advancing her career – a “travesty of justice” in the Court’s view.
The decision is also significant as the High Court expressly recognised pregnancy-based discrimination as a form of sex discrimination under Article 16 of the Constitution.
The full decision can be found here.
Madeleine McIntosh is a solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons.