“Financial compensation might act as a balm to soothe the mind...” SC while awarding Rs. 50 Lakh compensation to ex-army havaldar terminated after wrongful diagnosis as HIV+ve

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On March 20, 2024 (Wednesday), the Supreme Court (SC) of India was hearing the Satyanand Singh vs. Union of India & Ors. case in which an ex-army havaldar was terminated from the service on wrongful diagnosis of AIDS (HIV+ve). The SC bench, Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Dipankar Datta directed the Indian Army to award ex-army havaldar a lumpsum compensation of Rs. 50 Lakh towards compensation on account of wrongful termination of service. While giving the order of compensation, the SC said, “We are conscious that whatever amount by way of compensation has been directed to be paid to the appellant (Satyanand Singh), by the respondents 2 to 4 (Union of India & Ors.), can in no manner compensate for the ordeal he had to face over the years; there could never be an appropriate substitute for such adversity but such financial compensation might act as a balm to soothe the mind and steady the future.” Further, the SC reversed the findings of the AFT (Armed Forces Tribunal) as it found a glaring defect in AFT’s ruling. It said that AFT had wrongly found the ex-serviceman infected with HIV+ve despite any symptoms diagnosed for the same.

The SC said “The AFT, in the impugned judgment, has referred to extensive medical literature citing the hazards of HIV and how it can lead to a deterioration in the physical condition of those who get detected as HIV+ve. However, while the medical literature contemplates myriad infirmities which accompany such a disease and consequently render an individual unfit for military service, the AFT failed to observe that the appellant in the present case was not diagnosed with any such symptoms. The appellant was treated by the Command Hospital at Pune in 2001, and by the respondents’ admission, successfully responded to the treatment administered. Nothing has been brought on record to indicate that the appellant was thereafter unfit to continue in service as a Clerk.” 

In this case, the appellant (Satyanand Singh) was enrolled in the Indian Army as a Havaldar. He continued discharging his duties on a clerical post without impediment until when he began suffering from fever, headache, and vomiting. He was referred to the Jabalpur Military Hospital for treatment. Satyanand tested positive for HIV and Army Headquarters issued a Notice stating that all persons who are HIV+ve and are suffering from pulmonary or extrapulmonary tuberculosis, would be considered as AIDS cases. He was further referred to the Military Hospital as he developed similar symptoms yet again. Further, via a Medical Report Satyanand was reported to be suffering from “AIDS-defining illness in the form of neuro-tuberculosis”, and thus was officially diagnosed with AIDS. Considering this, the ex-serviceman was discharged from service under Rule 13 (3), Item III of the Army Rules, 1954 on the grounds of having been found medically unfit for further service. 

The matter was further mentioned before the Madhya Pradesh High Court where the appellant sought quashing of the discharge order dated 26th December, 2001, and reinstatement with all consequential benefits. The Division Bench observed that following Para 355 (f) of the Regulations for the Army, 1987 the appellant was not discharged solely on the ground of having contracted a sexually transmitted disease. It added, “The appellant’s discharge from service was held to be valid on the ground that AIDS would incapacitate his physical capacity, thus coming within the ambit of Rule 13 of the Rules.” The ex-army havaldar moved the SC against the HC’s order. 

During the proceedings, the SC bench rejected the contentions of the respondent and observed “The respondent’s contention that doctors in 2001 have used their best professional judgment to opine that the appellant was HIV+ve, in our opinion, should be rejected, in the absence of any medical literature to show that the test results as per then prevailing medical standards justify the diagnosis that the appellant was suffering from AIDS-defining illness. On the other hand, there are lapses galore on the part of the respondents. They were, in spite of being aware of the adverse and pernicious impact on the appellant, grossly careless and negligent.” It added, “The AFT’s opinion that the need of the medical specialist was fulfilled by placing an oncologist on Board is something with which we cannot agree. The appellant while serving in the army was being prematurely discharged; thus extreme caution and care in ensuring correct diagnoses was required.”

After hearing the matter, the SC directed the Indian Army to award ex-army havaldar a lumpsum compensation of Rs. 50 Lakh towards compensation on account of wrongful termination of services, leave encashment dues, non-reimbursement of medical expenses, and the social stigma faced, to be paid within eight weeks from the date of this judgment without fail.