For the past one week, ‘tareekh pe tareekh’ got a new meaning; deadlines, and very short ones, were being given by courts to the Union and state governments to set things right. High courts across the country heard PILs on the inept handling of the pandemic or took them up suo motu.
As many as 11 high courts -- Gujarat, Allahabad, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, MP, Bombay, Telangana, Patna, Karnataka and Uttarakhand -- issued orders on supply of oxygen and medicines, on updating availability of beds, on imposing lockdowns, on providing facilities for migrant workers, on strict implementation of Covid guidelines for elections and related issues. For once, the courts were reacting to the ground reality with urgency.
However, the Supreme Court woke up to the situation only on Thursday. Noting that the directives of various high courts on Covid were ‘creating confusion’ and ‘diverting resources’, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said it was taking suo motu cognizance of ‘certain issues’. The bench also appointed senior lawyer Harish Salve amicus curiae to assist the court in the matter.
Before commenting on CJ Bobde’s decision, a day before he retires, a quick recap of the Covid directives of high courts across the country is in order.
The Delhi High Court had on Wednesday lambasted the Union government’s handling of the oxygen crisis that several states, including the national capital, have been witnessing amid a huge wave of Covid cases. Hearing a petition by the Max Hospitals, the court questioned how the government could be oblivious to the disaster unfolding every hour.
The Madras High Court raised concerns about the pricing of Covid vaccines and noted that Rs 600 per dose might impose a ‘financial burden’ on members of lower income groups in India.
The Calcutta High Court expressed dissatisfaction with the Election Commission of India over the enforcement of Covid health safety norms during the ongoing West Bengal assembly election process, including campaigning.
A day after their respective high courts pulled up the Bihar and Telangana governments, two more hospitals were dedicated to corona patients in Patna and in Hyderabad, a night curfew was imposed. The Uttarakhand HC told the state government to ensure that the forthcoming Char Dham Yatra is not a repeat of Kumbh Mela. The Bombay High Court pulled up the Maharashtra government for not complying with its earlier order directing the supply of 10,000 vials of Remdesivir to Covid hospitals in Nagpur.
The Karnataka High Court has directed the state government to ensure timely assistance and relief to senior citizens in need, in the present pandemic. Hearing a clutch of petitions against the alleged failure of the state government in dealing with the pandemic situation, the MP high court directed the government to ramp up testing and ensure supply of oxygen and Remdesivir.
On April 15 this year, the Gujarat HC took note of the general perception of state data on Covid not being accurate and said that “the State should not feel shy of publishing the correct data of RT-PCR testing results, if such figures are not being correctly reported”.
The Allahabad High Court issued a sternly worded order directing the Uttar Pradesh government to shut down all private and government-run establishments in five cities — Prayagraj, Lucknow, Varanasi, Kanpur Nagar and Gorakhpur — imposing a near-lockdown till April 26. The SC has granted an interim stay on this order.
The SC’s initiative taking suo motu notice of the Covid directives of various high courts comes a day after the stinging order of the Delhi HC telling the Union government to “beg, borrow or steal” to arrange for oxygen cylinders in hospitals. It could have done so much earlier.
The government’s policy of management by absenteeism was clear from the time the pandemic hit India. Doctors were not being paid in time, compensation promises to frontline health workers were not being honoured, social media rather than the mainstream media was bringing out the grim reality in public hospitals whereas the Union government was in denial. In fact, it sought to build morale through showering petals on hospitals and banging utensils. Much of what the high courts have relied on is media reports, as in the case of the Gujarat HC.
Just as the government was in denial, the SC was oblivious to the plight of the millions of migrant workers trudging back to their homes last year. When it finally heard the case, it went with the government version that it was a case of much ado about nothing.
The SC has also been slow to act against the blatant misuse of the Sedition Act, the crackdown on people protesting for democratic rights, the vilification and witch-hunting of dissenters. It has also been sitting on several PILs such as the one on the non-implementation of police reforms.
However, the SC still is an institution capable of setting right many a wrong. One only hopes that this time it will not permit the Union government to give its say in a sealed cover.