In State of Kerala and Anr. v. N. M. Thomas and Ors., (1976) 2 SCC 310, A. N. Ray, C. J. has thus explained the criterion of “seniority-cum-merit” (SCC p. 335, Para 38):-
“With regard to promotion the normal principles are either merit-cum-seniority or seniority-cum-merit. Seniority-cum-merit means that given the minimum necessary merit requisite for efficiency of administration, the senior though the less meritorious shall have priority.”
The above position was highlighted in Sivaiah case . At Para 18 of the said judgment it was noted as follows :-
“We thus arrive at the conclusion that the criterion of “seniority-cum-merit” in the matter of promotion postulates that given the minimum necessary merit requisite for efficiency of administration, the senior, even though less meritorious, shall have priority and a comparative assessment of merit is not required to be made. For assessing the minimum necessary merit, the competent authority can lay down the minimum standard that is required and also prescribe the mode of assessment of merit of the employee who is eligible for consideration for promotion. Such assessment can be made by assigning marks on the basis of appraisal of performance on the basis of service record and interview and prescribing the minimum marks which would entitle a person to be promoted on the basis of seniority-cum-merit.”
In all services, whether public or private there is invariably a hierarchy of posts comprising of higher posts and lower posts. Promotion, as understood under the service law jurisprudence, is advancement in rank, grade or both and no employee has right to be promoted, but has a right to be considered for promotion. The following observations in Sant Ram Sharma v. State of Rajasthan and Ors., AIR 1967 SC 1910 are significant :
“The question of a proper promotion policy depends on various conflicting factors. It is obvious that the only method in which absolute objectivity can be ensured is for all promotions to be made entirely on grounds of seniority. That means that if a post falls vacant it is filled by the person who has served longest in the post immediately below. But the trouble with the seniority system is that it is so objective that it fails to take any account of personal merit. As a system it is fair to every official except the best ones; an official has nothing to win or lose provided he does not actually become so inefficient that disciplinary action has to be taken against him. But, though the system is fair to the officials concerned, it is a heavy burden on the public and a great strain on the efficient handling of public business. The problem, therefore, is how to ensure reasonable prospect of advancement to all officials and at the same time to protect the public interest in having posts filled by the most able man? In other words, the question is how to find a correct balance between seniority and merit in a proper promotion-policy.”
The principles of seniority-cum-merit and merit-cum-seniority are conceptually different. For the former, greater emphasis is laid in seniority, though it is not the determinative factor, while in the latter merit is the determinative factor. In The State of Mysore and Anr. v. Syed Mahamood and Ors., AIR 1968 SC 1113, it was observed that in the background of Rule 4(3)(b) of the Mysore State Civil services (General Recruitment) Rules, 1957 which required promotion to be made by selection on the basis of seniority-cum-merit, that the rule required promotion to be made by selection on the basis of “seniority subject to fitness of the candidate to discharge the duties of the post from among persons eligible for promotion”. It was pointed out that where the promotion is based on seniority-cum-merit the officer cannot claim promotion as a matter of right by virtue of his seniority alone and if he is found unfit to discharge the duties of the higher post, he may be passed over and an officer junior to him may be promoted. But these are not the only modes for deciding whether promotion is to be granted or not.
These aspects were highlighted in K. Samantaray v. National Insurance Co. Ltd., AIR 2003 SC 4422, and in State of U.P. v. Jalal Uddin and others, (2005) 1 SCC 169.
Ref: AIR 2007 SC 994 : (2006) 8 Suppl. SCR 760 : (2006) 12 SCC 574 : JT 2006 (10) SC 258 : (2006) 11 SCALE 593