SC upholds dismissal of ISRO scientist for unauthorised association with foreign country

Read Time: 13 minutes


Court refused to allow an appeal of Dr. VR Sanal Kumar against the Kerala High Court order of January 16, 2012.

The Supreme Court has recently declined to interfere with the dismissal of a senior scientist, who claimed to be the best suited to the post of chairman Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), for his unauthorised absence and association with foreign countries.

A bench of Justices M R Shah and C T Ravikumar took into consideration the facts that the appellant continued to get himself associated with a South Korean institution, especially in the area of rocket propulsion technology, which is a strategic research and development subject.

His acts and conduct put a question mark upon his honesty, integrity, reliability, dependability and trustworthiness, raising concern for the security of the State, the court said.

"When such acts/conduct occur/occurs from a scientist in a sensitive and strategic organisation, the decision to impose dismissal from service cannot be said to be illegal or absolutely unwarranted," it said. 

The apex court refused to allow an appeal of Dr V R Sanal Kumar against the Kerala High Court order of January 16, 2012, which had dismissed his plea against the decision of the Central Administrative Tribunal, Ernakulam.

The tribunal had partly allowed his appeal and annulled his dismissal from service retrospectively from September 1, 2003, and clarified that it should be effective from the date of order, i e, August 11, 2007.

The top court noted it was not the mere unauthorised absence of the appellant that actually weighed with the authority. "Evidently, the organisation is perfectly justified in casting suspicion on the honesty, integrity, reliability, dependability and trustworthiness in view of the factual situation", said the court.

"It noted scientist's unauthorised association with foreign institution, especially in the area of propulsion, which is a strategic research and development subject in the organisation and based on which the nation’s rocketry and ambitious launch vehicle programs are/were advancing, was a matter of concern for the security of the State," court highlighted. 

The appellant was initially appointed as Scientist/Engineer in Group-A in Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram of the Indian Space Research Organisation on January 15, 1992. He was promoted in 1999.

In 2002, he was invited by Prof H D Kim, Head of School of Mechanical Engineering, Andong National University, South Korea, to join as a postdoctoral trainee and to assist him for one year, as the appellant had earned reputation as a well-known expert on the starting and transient flows in the Solid Rocket Motors.

In 2003, the appellant applied for sabbatical leave for one year. The competent Authority decided against it due to the exigency of service and in public interest.

However, he applied for personal leave and went to South Korea for his post doctoral research. He sent request for leave which was declined. Meanwhile, he had published a technical paper as first author with a foreigner as one of the co-authors in the 39th American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Joint Propulsion Conference, USA held during July, 2003, without obtaining specific approval of the Competent Authority. 

A departmental inquiry was then initiated against him after a chargesheet had been filed. In the inquiry, which was only initially attended by him, charges against him were found as proved.

In 2004, he came back and rejoined the duty. However, within days, he went back to South Korea without permission. Finally, in 2007, he was dismissed from the service.

Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan on behalf of the appellant contended he was dismissed without inquiry in the manner provided under the Central Civil Services Rules. He also submitted the order of dismissal on August 11, 2007 on the face of it did not reflect the satisfaction of the President that in the interest of the security of the State, it is not expedient to hold an inquiry. 

Advocate Shailesh Madiyal for the Union government and others submitted that ISRO, being a strategically important organisation having sensitivity, especially from the angle of the security of the State, its employees are not allowed to go abroad and to take up assignments/research there, without permission.

The appellant claimed he is a high-profile scientist with specialisation in rocket propulsion with proven credentials at par with NASA scientist. He further stated that he is second to none in space programme and is having all potential to become the Chairman of ISRO and is the best suitable candidate for the post with immediate effect. 

"We are of the considered view that the court cannot be an island and feign oblivion of the pivotal role of a scientist/engineer attached to ISRO and also the role of ISRO as the space agency of India. Obviously, it is involved in science, engineering and technology to harvest the benefits of outer space for India," the bench said.

"However, his continued association with a foreign agency/university, ignoring the fact that he is a responsible scientist in the ISRO, which is a highly sensitive and strategic research and development organisation under the Department of Space, Government of India, if viewed suspiciously and thought that his further exposure to ISRO’s critical rocket technologies would create serious complications, it cannot be said to be bereft of substance and not a matter of concern in regard to the security of the State", the bench added.

Taking into account the expertise of the appellant in the particular branch and that he has been working under ISRO since 1992, there cannot be any doubt with respect to the experience which he gathered in the subject from ISRO, court said. 

In such circumstances leaving to a foreign country without prior permission and continuing there for a considerable long period despite advice and instructions to come back and continuing to associate with such a foreign organisation/university researching on rocketry, the respondent organisation cannot be said to have committed a flaw or fault in entertaining suspicion on his honesty, integrity, reliability, dependability and trustworthiness and above all to treat such acts as a matter of concern in relation to the security of the State, the court added.

The bench also said the court cannot judge on the expediency or inexpediency to dispense with the inquiry as it was arrived at based on the subjective satisfaction of the President based on materials. 

"In the circumstances, we do not find any reason to interfere with the disinclination on the part of the Tribunal and then the High Court, on the issue," the bench said.

Case Title: Dr. V.R. Sanal Kumar vs. Union Of India & Ors.