'Cover Up at ONGC!' Gujarat High Court

Vol 27, PW 1 (11 Jan 24) People & Policy

ONGC employee relations chief Rajan Asthana and former HR director and interim chairman Alka Mittal are in the spotlight after a stern Gujarat High Court ruling against the company.

On December 8 (2023), Justice Nikhil S Kariel ruled against ONGC in a petition brought by Dipendra Singh Thakur and others over the cancellation of their recruitment as paramedics, apparently because of union pressure. "ONGC is telling the candidates they will explore legal options (such as appealing to the Supreme Court)," says a well-placed source.

In his ruling, Justice Kariel found "very interesting reading" in an email dated October 19 (2021) from Asthana. "As you are aware, a decision was taken in January 2020, based on the request of GSs (general secretaries) of recognised unions to withhold the declaration of a result of the then ongoing recruitment of the paramedics," reads Asthana's email to a subordinate.

Yet, ONGC told the court the reason for the cancellation was the Covid pandemic. "Again, it is reiterated that the unfortunate part is that the cover-up was by senior management," adds Justice Kariel, "whereas it appears that even the HR director (then Alka Mittal) was also a party to the decision-making process, which was essentially a cover-up to justify their arbitrary decision before this court."

Justice Kariel directs that a copy of the ruling be sent to the oil secretary Pankaj Jain "for information and initiating action against the concerned officers for having indulged in taking such a decision at the behest of the unions, which decision as referred to hereinabove, is against all settled standards and norms." A source complains that by the second week of January 2024, a month after the ruling, ONGC management had still taken no action against those involved in the case.

"This is despite the court saying that its orders have to be implemented immediately," he says. Hoping for justice are at least 14 applicants who responded to an ONGC job advert in 2019 for 21 Grade-IV pharmacists, Grade-IV nurses and junior health attendants.

They were asked to appear in person to verify documents in January 2020. However, ONGC rejected their applications, on the grounds that they did not have domicile certificates or proof of residence.