1. These petitions are filed by the same petitioner. They raise a common question of law.
2. The petitioner is the owner of three coffee estates in Chickmagalur district. Respondent 3, the provident fund inspector, has called upon him to contribute to the employees' provident fund. The petitioner has disputed his liability to contribute to that fund. The objection of the petitioner is that in none of his estates he has been employing fifty or more persons and, therefore, for the period from 1957 to end of 1960 he is not liable to contribute to the fund. The question whether the petitioner had employed fifty or more persons during the relevant period does not appear to have been decided by any of the authorities. That was undoubtedly a point in dispute between the petitioner and respondent 3. The counter-affidavit filed by respondent 1 shows that respondent 1 had decided that question; but, his conclusion has not been recorded, though orally informed to the petitioner. It is difficult to believe that any statutory authority would take an oral decision and fail to record the same. From the correspondence that passed between the respondents and the petitioner and placed before us, it is clear that the parties were at issue on the question whether the petitioner employed fifty or more persons in his several estates. Our attention has not been invited to any record in the case showing that at any time any of the respondents had come to the conclusion that the petitioner had been employing fifty or more persons in any of his estates. Unless the petitioner had been employing, during the relevant period, fifty or more persons in each of his estates, the provisions of the Employees' Provident Funds Act, 1952, would not be applicable. Therefore, it is necessary for the authorities first to decide the question whether the petitioner is liable to contribute to the employees' provident fund. It is unnecessary at this stage to decide as to who is the proper authority to decide that question. It is contended on behalf of the petitioner that the question has to be determined by respondent 3. But, according to the petitioner, if there is dispute as regards the number of persons employed, then that dispute should be decided by the Central Government under S. 19A. The judicial opinion on this point is divided. The Madras High Court in Annamalai Mudaliar and Brothers v. Regional Provident Fund Commissioner, Madras [1955 - I L.L.J. 674] has taken the view that in a dispute between the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner and the person who is said to be liable to contribute to the fund, the same should be decided only by the Central Government under S. 19A The Patna High Court in Bankim Chandra Chakravarti and another v. Regional Provident Fund Commissioner and other [1958 - II L.L.J. 444] took a contrary view. That Court was of the opinion that unless the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner felt any doubt or difficulty and referred the doubt or difficulty to Central Government, the Central Government is not required to decide any matter. It took the view that the question whether in a given case the provision of the Provident Fund Act are applicable, is a matter primarily to be decided by the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner. At this stage, it is not necessary to decide which one of the two views is the correct view. Suffice it to say that in the instant case, neither the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner nor the Central Government has decided the controversy between the petitioner and the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner. That being so, we are of the opinion that the respondent cannot take any coercive steps against the petitioner to realize the sums said to be due from him as contribution to the fund.
3. Various other controversies were raised before us. We have not decided any one of those controversies. Those controversies will be decided if and when occasion arises.
4. For the reasons mentioned above, we hereby direct the respondents not to proceed against the petitioner for the realization of the sums said to be due from him to the provident fund unless and the question whether during the relevant period he had been employing fifty or more persons, is decided.
5. In these petitions, the parties will bear their own costs.