The Bombay High Court on Friday directed the Maharashtra government to submit all files and records pertaining to three COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued in July and August 2021, which included the restriction on the use of local trains by unvaccinated people.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice M S Karnik asked for the files after the state government informed that the restriction on local train travel had been invoked by the then state chief secretary Sitaram Kunte considering the COVID-19-related "emergency" at the time.
"What was the emergency that enabled the chief secretary to take a decision all by himself and the fundamental rights of the citizens were curtailed?" the court asked.
The bench was hearing a bunch of public interest litigations challenging the prohibition on the use of local trains in the city by unvaccinated persons, stating that the move was illegal, arbitrary and in breach of the citizens' fundamental right to move freely across the country as guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (d) of the Constitution.
The PILs challenged the three SOPs issued by the state government on July 15, August 10 and August 11 last year that included the restriction on local train travel.
Advocate Niles Ojha, the counsel for one of the petitioners, had previously argued that the state had failed to apply its mind to the SOPs and discriminated between the vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, though neither the Centre nor state government had made vaccination mandatory.
On Friday, senior counsel Anil Anturkar, who appeared for the state government, told the bench that as Kunte had since vacated the office of the state chief secretary, he had not filed any affidavit in the court explaining the rationale behind such prohibition.
"At that time, people were dying (of COVID-19), and the chief secretary considered the situation to be that of an emergency," Anturkar said.
He further submitted that while the August 10, 2021 SOP had been signed by the state government, signifying that it was the decision of the state executive committee, the other two had been signed by Kunte since, he was the chairperson of the committee.
The High Court however, pointed out that as per the state's own records, the secretaries of departments such as home, revenue, finance and relief and rehabilitation were members of the state executive committee.
"They (secretaries of the departments mentioned above) probably have offices in the same premises. If it was such an emergency then couldn't the chief secretary call at least one or two of them?" the bench asked.
The court then said that it wanted all the records pertaining to the three SOPs.
"We need to look into the relevant records and files pertaining to the SOPs under challenge. Let the entire records/files be placed before us on February 21," the court said, adding that it will then decide whether the chief secretary should be called upon or not.
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