Illegal Detention of Vehicle & Seizure of Goods under Transportation by VAT Authorities – High Court directs for payment of Damages from erring officials to be collected from their personal account to check the arbitrary exercise of power.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the mobile squads of the VAT Departments daily intercept trucks & Lorries and often detain these transport vehicles and seize the transported goods on one pretext or the other. The accompanying documents are viewed with suspicion with an intention to point out deficiencies to enable these authorities to order detention of transport vehicles and seizure of goods. The Higher Authorities and the Appellate forums also do not pay heed to the woes of the assessees. In such cases can the High Court sit as a silent spectator? The High Courts have been reprimanding the erring officials and have, in past, imposed heavy fines on them to have a deterrent impact on their illegal working but ironically the instances of Harassment of the law abiding assessees on these counts is multiplying every day. The Allahabad High Court in a recent Landmark Judgment dated 19.12.2014 in Writ Tax No. 478 of 2014 in the case of Sandeep Bulk Carriers vs. State of U.P. & others has been critical of the highhandedness and apathy of the VAT Department and have ordered for Historic remedial measures.

The facts of the case are that petitioner is a transporter as well as owner of a tanker No. UP85V9636 who had loaded Bitumen in the aforesaid tanker from the Indian Oil Corporation, Mathura Refinery in the evening of 27.06.2014 for transportation to M/s Concast Infratech Ltd. Bhopal (M.P.). Thereafter some mechanical defect developed in the tanker which was repaired in the Chaudhari Works Shop, Delhi Bypass Road, Chaudhari Market, Mathura between 28.6.2014 to 30.6.2014. Thereafter the tanker proceeded in the night of 30.6.2014. The aforesaid tanker was intercepted near Farah by the Assistant Commissioner, Commercial Tax, Mobile Squad, Mathura and after about two hours a detention memo was issued on Ist July, 2014 at about 1 A.M. The tanker was detained by the said authority even though the bitumen loaded in it was found accompanied with all proper and genuine documents including Invoice of selling dealer M/s Indian Oil Corporation, Mathura, bilti and declaration Form 49 of the Madhya Pradesh Government issued by the purchasing dealer M/s Concast Infratech Ltd. Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The petitioner submitted objections on 2.7.2014 before the aforesaid authority bringing to his notice the facts that certain defect had developed in the tanker on 28.6.2016 and it could be repaired on 30th June, 2014. An affidavit of the driver of the tanker to the aforesaid effect was also filed. A show cause notice dated 2.7.2014 was issued by the Department which was replied by the petitioner on 4th July, 2014 in which he explained the matter, denied the entry of his tanker at Mahuwan Toll Plaza, requested to verify the alleged information of the Toll Plaza and demanded Compensation/Damages of Rs. 5,000/- per day for illegal detention of his tanker. However, the Department passed seizure order on 5th July, 2014 on the ground that between 28th June, 2014 to 30th June, 2014 the aforesaid tanker had crossed the toll plaza on 28.6.2014 while going from Mathura to Agra and on 29.6.2014 while returning from Agra to Mathura and, as such, it is evident that under the garb of the papers accompanied with the tanker, bitumen in question was being illegally transported and demanded cash security of Rs. 4,80,000/- for release of the goods. Aggrieved with this order the petitioner moved an application under the proviso to Section 48 (7) of the Act before the Joint Commissioner, Commercial Tax (SIB) and Mobile Squad, Mathura on 7.7.2014 giving complete details and annexing documentary evidences. It was specifically stated in the application by the petitioner that the information with the department from the toll plaza relates to merely last four digits of the registration number of some vehicle on the basis of which it cannot be said that the petitioner’s tanker crossed the toll plaza or the information received by the department relates to the tanker of the petitioner. He stated that in “UP85” series there are twenty two vehicles registered in the office of the R.T.O. Mathura of which last four digits is “9636”. However, the Department rejected the application of the petitioner vide order dated 8th July, 2014 after recording a finding that vehicle No. 9636 is entered in the records of the toll plaza. On the aforesaid basis he drew inference that the tanker in question down loaded bitumen at some place and thereafter it came back and again loaded bitumen which was being illegally transported under the cover of the papers of earlier transaction with intent to evade payment of tax. The Departmental Officers did not verify the complete number of the vehicle with reference to the information received. Aggrieved with the aforesaid order, the petitioner preferred Second Appeal No. 223 of 2014 before the Commercial Tax Tribunal , Agra which was dismissed by order dated 16th July, 2014. Aggrieved with these orders the petitioner filed the present writ petition for release of the vehicle, goods and for payment of Damages of Rs. 5000/- per day for illegal detention of the Vehicle and illegal seizure of Bitumen. During the course of Hearing in the High Court, the Officials admitted that this tanker has not loaded Bitumen after 27.6.2014 from IOC Ltd., Mathura till it was detained. The only basis for seizing Bitumen loaded in the tanker in question is that as per information received, last four digits in numerical of registration number of tanker in question were common to a vehicle of similar type which has crossed Mahuwan Toll Plaza on 29/30.6.2014.The registration number of the tanker in question is U.P.-85 V-9636 as evident from the documents found by the authorities accompanying the goods. Photostat copies of two other invoices of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., Mathura both dated 30th June, 2014 evidenced that Bitumen were loaded in two other tankers bearing registration number as U.P.-85 P-9636 and U.P.-81 F-9636. Thus, last four numerical digits of all these three tankers are common while the tankers are different and having different registration number. Thus, it was alleged by the Petitioner that the seizure is based on conjectures and surmises and based on no evidence but on mere suspicion only to harass the petitioner for their personal benefits and therefore damages @5000/- per day were demanded against the respondents for wholly arbitrary, illegal, unauthorized and baseless detention of his tanker since 30.6.2014 till it is released. The contention and the facts averred by the Petitions were not controverted by the Department. The Officials prayed for unconditional apology and gave an assurance that they would be careful in future.

The High Court was irked by the state of affairs existing in the State and openly reprimanded the erring officials. Seeing the stand of the High Court, the State Government assured the Court to come out with appropriate law / guidelines / instructions which may have a check on arbitrary exercise of power or negligent action of authorities of the Government so as to minimize the possibility of harassment of people after taking into consideration the view expressed by Hon’ble Supreme Court in the Case of N. Nagendra Rao and Company Vs. State of Andhra Pradesh 1994 (6) SCC 205 para 8, 9, 13 to 20, 25 and 29 and the Division Bench Judgment of the Allahabad Highs Court in the Case of Ram Singh and others Vs. State of U.P. and others 2000 U.P.T.C. 865 para 6, 7, 8 and 15 and also the judgment of Hon’ble Supreme Court in Lucknow Development Authority Vs. M.K. Gupta, A.I.R. 1994 SC 787 para 8 and 11. The State Government also committed that they shall soon come out with a Government Order to provide a remedy including compensation for wrong committed by Government Officers or Employees.

The Court was critical against the Joint Commissioner for not giving weight to the evidence provided by the Petitioner and the Tribunal also having acting mechanically. The Court held as under:

17.”Now the question arises that what amount of compensation may be awarded to the petitioner for illegal detention of the tanker in question. In the case Ram Singh and others (supra) Division Bench of this Court held in paragraph Nos. 7,13 and 15 as under:

“7. In the same decision the Supreme Court in para 11 observed as under:

“Today the issue thus is not only of award of compensation but who should bear the brunt. The concept of authority and power exercised by public functionaries has many dimensions. It has undergone tremendmous change with passage of time and change in socio-economic outlook. The authority empowered to function under a Statute while exercising power discharges public duty. It has to act to subserve general welfare and common good. In discharging this duty honestly and bonafide loss may accrue to any person. And he may claim compensation, which may in circumstances be payable. But where the duty is performed capriciously or the exercise of power results in harassment and agony then the responsibility to pay the loss determined should be whose? In a modern society no authority can arrogate to itself the power to act in a manner which is arbitrary. It is unfortunate that matters which require immediate attention linger on and the man in the (street is) made to run from one end to other with no result. The culture of window clearance appears to be totally dead. Even in ordinary matters a common man who has neither the political backing nor the financial strength to match the inaction in public oriented departments gets frustrated and it erodes the credibility in the system public administration, no doubt involves a vast amount of administrative discretion which shields the action of administrative authority. But where it is found that exercise of discretion was malafide and the complainant is entitled to compensation for mental and physical harassment then the office can no more claim to be under protective cover. When a citizen seeks to recover compensation from a public authority in respect of injuries suffered by him for capricious exercise of power and the national commission finds it duly proved then it has a statutory obligation to award the same? It was never more necessary than today when even social obligations are regulated by grant of statutory powers. The test of permissive form of grant are over. It is now imperative and implicit in the exercise of power that it should be form the sake of society. When the court directs payment of damages or compensation against the state, the ultimate sufferer is the common man. It is the tax payer’s money which is paid for in action of those who are entrusted under the act to discharge their duties in accordance with law. It is, therefore, necessary that the Commission when it is satisfied that a complainant is entitled to compensation for harassment or mental agony or oppression which finding of course should be recorded carefully or on material and convincing circumstances and not lightly then it should further direct the department concerned to pay the amount to the complainant from the public fund immediately but to recover the same from those who are found responsible for such unpardonable behaviour by dividing it proportionately where there are more than one functionaries.”

13. In our opinion the time has come when these illegalities by the authorities of detaining and seizing the must be strongly checked, otherwise the law will continue to be violated by such authorities.

15. We are inclined to grant compensation to the petitioners in these cases instead of relegating the petitioner to file Civil Suits as we want to stop the illegal practice of detaining and seizing of the vehicle by the U.P. Trade Tax Authorities. Everyone knows that a civil suit often takes ten years or more to decide and hence we are not relegating the petitioner to that remedy, however, Sri Pradeep Kumar Gupta, learned Additional Chief Standing Counsel requested that he will himself speak to the Commissioner, Trade Tax, U.P. and convey the displeasure of this Court and the Commissioner will ensure that these illegalities do not occur in future. We accordingly direct the Commissioner, Trade Tax the charge sheet the officials who had committed these illegalities and proceed Departmentally against them. The Commissioner shall also grant proper compensation to the petitioner in both these cases commensurate to the loss they have suffered preferably within two months from the date of production of a certified copy of this order in accordance with law. The Commissioner shall also issue instructions to all Trade Tax Authorities forthwith that such illegalities must stop immediately.”

19. In view of the above discussions the respondent No.1 is directed to determine the compensation within 30 days from today and to pay the amount of compensation to the petitioner by account payee bank draft within two weeks thereafter. The state government shall be at liberty to conduct an inquiry in the matter of illegal detention of the tanker and seizure of bitumen in question and may take action in accordance with law against the guilty officers/employees.

20. Now the last point that needs consideration is the undertaking of the State Government given through the learned Additional Advocate General and also of the Central Government as given by the learned Central Government counsel as recorded in paragraph 8 and 12 of this judgment. Learned Additional Advocate General has stated that State Government is considering to issue a government order to provide remedy including compensation for wrongs committed by government officers or employees. A statement has been made on behalf of the Central Government that the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, Government of India, New Delhi is considering for making appropriate laws/guidelines/instructions which may have a check on the arbitrary exercise of power by authorities so as to minimise the possibility of harassment of transporters and dealers in general and to facilitate free flow of trade and commerce. Harassment and injury to persons particularly a person of poor class of society, by officers/employees of governments by their arbitrary, negligent and illegal actions can be effectively checked provided there is a law providing efficacious remedy for consequential liability of such officers/employees on one hand and on the other hand appropriate compensation to aggrieved person. Such a law/government order may also provide for speedy disposal of such matters. This shall also effectively check corruption. Learned Additional Advocate General for the State Government as well as the central Government Counsel have stated that the State Government as well as Central Government is considering to enact a law or to issue a government order for this purpose. Under the circumstances this Court hopes and trusts that the State Government as well as the Central Government shall consider the matter in the light of the undertakings as recorded in paras 8 and 12 above and may take appropriate decision/action in accordance with law preferably within three months from today.

21. In result the writ petition succeeds and is hereby allowed with cost of Rs. 20,000/- which the respondent No.1 shall pay to the petitioner within a month from today apart from compensation as directed above.

Let a copy of this order be sent by the Registrar General of this Court to the Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary Law of the Government of Uttar Pradesh as well as to the Law Secretary and the Finance Secretary of the Central Government for doing the needful.

This is indeed a Historic Judgment but the million Dollar question is would such judgments prove a deterrent to the officials who harass the honest & law abiding assessees for their personal gains? Only time has the answer to this question.

(Author-  Inder Chand Jain, Agra, Mobile:9319215672, Email: inderjain2007@rediffmail.com)

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