A recent order by a tribunal is being greeted enthusiastically by mental health rights activists.
The Central Administrative Tribunal in Kolkata has questioned the decision of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) to terminate the employment of a person with a history of mental illness, asking the GSI to clarify why the case should not be referred to the President of India as the circumstances are “exceptional”, according to a service rule.
Siddhartha Sankar Ghosh (name used with consent) was deemed by the GSI to have resigned from the organisation, in accordance with the same service rule, because of his absence from the workplace. The GSI’s order made no mention of Ghosh’s illness. He had been issued a showcause notice on September 28, 2016, which asked him to explain his absence from September 7, 2010, to the date the notice was issued.
Ghosh filed a case in February 2021 challenging the GSI decision to terminate his services, saying it was wrongful because he had been mentally able to resume work from before the show-cause notice was served to him and the GSI was aware of it.
He had tried to bring this to the attention of his employers with reference to his medical reports.
“I will not rest till my demands are met,” says Ghosh, speaking from Calcutta Pavlov Hospital, where he is an inmate. “Once you are certified a patient of mental health, it is like a stamp. You are stigmatised forever. That is why I am not getting my job back, despite my stable condition,” Ghosh adds, giving a detailed account of his life.
This newspaper contacted the PRO of GSI and sent an email requesting for a response on Ghosh’s case to the GSI director-general, but is yet to receive a reply after more than a week.
Ghosh had been sporadically receiving treatment for mental illness from 1999. He was admitted to Pavlov in 2010 following mental disturbances, but medical records at Pavlov state that there was significant improvement in his condition soon after his admission and he was declared “fit for discharge”.
But the fact that he had to stay on at the hospital because of his personal circumstances went against him, says Ghosh.
“Doctors certified him as fit for discharge soon after he was admitted,” says Ratnaboli Ray of Anjali, an NGO for mental health rights that has been helping Ghosh to fight the case. His family would not take him back, Anjali activists and hospital authorities said.
GSI was informed. In a letter dated November 30, 2015, written by GSI officials addressed to higher authorities on Ghosh’s condition, it was mentioned that Pavlov authorities had found Ghosh in “stable condition” under supervision and “can be discharged”.
The authorities from GSI visited Pavlov and updated themselves on Ghosh’s progress, says Arush Sengupta, Ghosh’s lawyer.
Despite their own visits and medical records, GSI issued the show-cause notice dated September 28, 2016, asking Ghosh to explain why he was absent from work. On March 13, 2018, on application of Central Civil Service (Leave) Rules, 1972, 12(2), they issued a notice saying he had been deemed to have resigned.
The rule allows the employers to assume an employee has resigned if he has been continuously absent for five years from his work, but conditionally. “Unless the President, in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, otherwise determines, a Government servant who remains absent from duty for a continuous period exceeding five years other than on foreign service, with or without leave, shall be deemed to have resigned from the Government service.”
Before the GSI’s final notice on termination of Ghosh’s services, on August 18, 2017, the Pavlov hospital superintendent had written to the police asking for assistance to discharge Ghosh.
“He has been found to be medically fit for discharge as per the observations of the Medical Board specially convened and constituted to ascertain his mental status from time to time,” says the letter. “…repeated attempts from both my hospital’s side as well as by members of Anjali (have) been met with complete and total lack of co-operation from the person’s family,” it adds.
Ghosh was determined to fight the case because he felt he had been robbed of his job as his circumstances were overlooked. Despite best attempts he could not get out of the hospital and join office, which he was competent to do, because he had nowhere to go.
In February 2021, Ghosh filed a case at the Central Administrative Tribunal for wrongful application of relevant service rules, which makes a provision for consideration of exceptional circumstances.
In February this year, the tribunal issued a notice to the office bearers of the GSI mentioned in the application asking them to clarify why the case should not be considered to constitute exceptional circumstances and referred it to the appropriate authority, which in this case is the President of India (acting through his advisors).
“The order is significant because it questions the indifference and the dismissiveness with which government bodies look at mental health questions,” says Ray.
“Why should he not be allowed to work? The fact that he is fighting his own battle is proof of his sense of agency and his idea of justice. He feels violated by the way he has been treated by his employers,” she adds.
“It is very heartening to know that the tribunal is asking the right questions to the right people on behalf of an underrepresented and marginalised community,” says Sengupta.
“We have to remember that as with other illnesses, with mental illness too, one recovers,” Ray stresses.
The next date of hearing is July 13.