04, Jun 2020 | Sanchita Kadam
While coronavirus has been wreaking havoc in public life, it has caused some stirs in the judiciary as well. With courts shifting to virtual hearings and taking up urgent matters only, the nation witnessed many significant judgments coming from courts, on issues relating to COVID19. For instance, issues like management of hospitals, amenities to migrants, shelters for stranded migrants, concerns of health care workers, disposal of dead bodies and many other intricacies that the executive was responsible for. Many courts have risen to the occasion and held the executive responsible and ensured that the measures are implemented. Here’s a look at the significant judgements on the myriad COVID19 issues that have cropped up before the courts and the manner in which they have dealt with these.
K. Ramakrishna vs. UOI and ors (WP(PIL) 101 OF 2020) order dated May 15 and May 22, 2020)
Coram: Justices AV Sesha SAI and B Krishna Mohan
The petitioner brought to light that the state was not allowing the Migrant Workers settled in Vijayawada and Guntur Districts as well as other districts, to return to their hometowns and Villages after conducting necessary testing for COVID19. He prayed for provide necessary food material and also give some immediate financial assistance to the Migrant Workers and providing them necessary transport. The court issued strict directions on May 22 to be immediately followed, to arrange for buses within 48 hours and to arrange for trains within 96 hours.
At the beginning of the order, the bench acknowledged the work done by labourers by saying that they moved from their ancestral homes to cities for better livelihood and they are the ones who ensure we lead a happy and comfortable life. The Court relaying the importance of taking up the petition said “If at this stage, this court does not react and pass these orders, this court would be falling in its role as a protector and alleviator of suffering… They deserve more help particularly when they are trekking back with their heads high instead of living at someone’s mercy.
On May 15, the bench issued orders that outposts on national highway should not just be food counters but also provide drinking water, dehydration salts and glucose packets and it should be equipped with paramedics or a doctor. AN ambulance should also be on call; there should be pblic toilets as well as sanitary pad dispensing machine.
The court after dispensing the order said, “the idea behind this interim order is only to supplement the efforts being made till the migration of labour is stopped.”
In its May 22 order the court asked the government to not view the PIL as an adversarial litigation and take the directions thus issued in true sense and spirit thereby respecting humanity. The court gave some extremely detailed instructions on how the migrants should be registered for transport within 48 hours, with staff, including those of supporting NGOs, working in shifts. It asked the state government to ensure that buses are arranged for travel and also put the District Legal Services Authority to work by directing them to visit shelters to ensure migrants are being provided for.
Read order dated May 15
Read order dated May 22
Suo Moto Writ Petition (order dated May 28)
Coram: Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar
The Patna High Court, on May 28, took suo moto cognizance of the incident where a toddler was seen in a video trying to wake up his dead mother at the Muzaffarpur Railway Station in Bihar.
The bench called the incident “rather shocking and unfortunate” and stated that the incident warranted the court’s intervention. The bench deemed the following issues warranting immediate attention:
(a) whether the postmortem of the dead-body was conducted? If yes, what was the cause of death? Did the lady actually die of hunger?
(b) was she travelling alone with her sibling? If not, who all were her companions,
(c) what action stands taken by the law enforcing agencies,
(d) were the relatives of the deceased informed of the incident,
(f) were the last rights of the deceased performed as per the custom, tradition and the instructions issued by the government, and
(g) Above all who is now taking care of the children/sibling(s), who unfortunately lost their mother in these times of distress.
The matter was kept for hearing at 2.15 pm on the same day, when Additional Advocate General SD Yadav told the court that the news report was partially incorrect and submitted that the deceased was mentally unstable and had died a natural death on her journey with her family from Surat; contrary to news reports that she died due to heat and thirst. The court was also informed that the child was in the safe custody of the deceased woman’s sister, who was also travelling with her in the train. The bench admitted these submissions and said, “in view of the aforesaid statement, at this stage, awaiting instructions from the Standing Counsel in the Supreme Court, we prudently refrain from issuing any further direction more so when the child is in safe custody.”
The matter is now listed on June 3.
Read order dated May 28.
Uttar Pradesh Worker Front vs. UOI and anr (PIL No. 579/2020; order dated May 19, 2020)
Coram: Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Siddhartha Varma
The petition was filed against the May 8 state government in which certain amends were made with respect to working hours of labourers under section 5 of the Factories Act. By the second hearing, the government had already withdrawn the order and the petition was dismissed for having become infructuous.
The Uttar Pradesh government, on May 15, withdrew its notification dated May 8 in which it was stipulated that daily work hours for factory workers will be increased to 12 hours and weekly hours will be increased from 48 hours to 72 hours. Further it had also amended the interval of rest by reducing it to half an hour which can be taken after 6 hours of continuous work, while the law stipulates one hour break after 5 hours of continuous work. After the court issued notice to the government, it withdrew the notification and informed the court of the same on May 19.
Read order dated May 19.
In-Re: Inhuman Condition At Quarantine Centres And For Providing Better Treatment To Corona Positive (PIL No. 574/2020)
Coram: Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Siddhartha Varma
The petition was on basis of a complaint received about unhygienic conditions in government hospitals. The wife of a person deceased due to COVID complained that her husband died due to negligence of medical staff and she herself was being treated at that hospital for COVID 19.
The petition is pending before the court and the state responded by way of affidavit on the last hearing date, May 28. On the hearing dated May 14, the court passed an order directing the state to make a composite list of persons entering the state and appointing a responsible officer for every 400 such persons to ensure they are in good health and have enough food available for them. The court also directed that the state authorities ensure that migrants are properly quarantined.
The court further mentioned, “We have no reason to believe that the State of Uttar Pradesh has not taken proper care to prepare a list of all who have arrived from outside. We have also no reason to believe that the State of Uttar Pradesh is not providing proper board and lodging to persons who have come from outside the State of Uttar Pradesh. However, we sincerely believe that whatever work is being done by the State of Uttar Pradesh may be done in a more organized manner.”
Read order dated May 14
Ritesh Srivastava and anr vs. State of UP (PIL No. 583 of 2020)
Coram: Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Ramesh Sinha
The petition filed by two advocates of the court is concerning the welfare of the Migrant labourers. The Allahabad High Court, while issuing notice to the state government has asked the government what measures it plans to take for rehabilitation of the labourers who have returned to the state and its plan to reduce migration to other states.
The petition was filed by two advocates, namely, Gaurav Tripathi and Ritesh Srivastava whereby they have stated that migrants are “travelling on foot from hundreds of kilometres from their working place to the hometown/village” since “neither the Central Government nor the State Governments where the labourers were working made adequate arrangements for their movement and their families.” The petition also highlighted that those migrants who could avail of trains made available to them, were not provided with food, thus facing starvation in the long journey. The petition also brought to fore the issue of migration by stating that “due to nonavailability of basic infrastructure for employment in the State of Uttar Pradesh, lakhs of people migrate to other states in search of employment” and although India is a Union and not a federal structure, “it is necessary for the State of Uttar Pradesh to strengthen its edifice for local employment.”
The court issued notice to the state government and called upon the State to, “explain about the policy and norms for providing medical facilities and treatment to the migrant workmen and their families and further to stop spreading of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in rural parts of the State of Uttar Pradesh and further about the scheme of the Government for rehabilitation of migrant workmen and their families in the State of Uttar Pradesh itself. The State is also required to give a complete layout to reduce migration of the natives of Uttar Pradesh to other parts of the country to earn minimum livelihood.”
Read order dated May 26
SUO MOTU: Precautionary Measures In The Wake Of Pandemic Of Corona Virus (COVID-19)
Coram: Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Ashutosh Shastri
Justices JB Pardiwala and IJ Vora (from May 22 to May 25)
Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice JB Pardiwala (From May 29 onwards)
The Gujarat High Court took suo moto cognizance to issue directions and monitor the measures taken by state government in wake of COVID19, while exercising continuous mandamus. AT the first hearing, on March 13, the court issued certain directions to the government with respect to sanitizing premises and to Bar Association as well to avoid public gatherings.
The court, in its order dated March 27, inter alia, asked the state home department to consider issuing a circular with regards to new arrests that could jeopardize the health of other prison inmates, keeping the pandemic in mind. On it April 1 hearing, the court took cognizance of the Tablighi Jamaat incident of Delhi and issued some directions to the state to inform the court about the members of the congregation present in the state. The court also requested civil society to not file multiple petitions before the court and instead work in tandem with the government in such times of crisis. It further said that it is tagging all petitions together without going into the merits of each petition and “any public interest litigation which is found to be motivated or sponsored or for personal gains for popularity or any vested interest, or frivolous would be dealt with at the appropriate stage firmly.”
At the May 22 hearing the coram of this case changed to comprise of Justices JB Pardiwala and IJ Vora. This bench took cognizance of the exponential rise in cases in the state and found it important that private hospitals step in in this fight. The bench initially commented, “Bound by a sense of duty, responsibility and empathy, it is now salient that the private hospitals step in to deliver adequate healthcare to their people. Even in times of a crisis when people are dying, it is disheartening and extremely exasperating to see these multi¬speciality hospitals with world class facilities and immense resources wanting to profit off people’s perils.”
The bench said it did not want the government to plead before private hospitals to make treatment of COVID19 affordable. The bench observed that Public Healthcare system is overwhelmed, strained and functioning beyond its capacity and cited various judgments to establish right to health as fundamental right. The bench directed the state to initiate appropriate legal proceedings against all those private / corporate hospitals who are not ready and willing to honour the understanding arrived at with regard to treating the COVID19 patients. Further the bench asked the state why certain hospitals were missing from the list of COVID19 centres of treatment, despite of being capable of handling thousands of patients and directed the state to initiate talks with them and compelled the hospitals to extend their helping hand to the government. The bench observed, “In such circumstances, all the eight hospitals named above are not only morally responsible, but, are also legally obliged to agree to reserve 60% beds for the treatment of the COVID19 patients.” The bench further directed the state to “issue a Notification making it mandatory for all the multispeciality private / corporate hospitals in the city of Ahmedabad and on the outskirts to reserve 50% of their beds” for COVID treatment.
The bench also took notice of the deplorable condition of Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad, whiel observing, “If we calculate weekly death, the Civil Hospital still contributes to highest death in most of the week during the last eight weeks.” The court also took cognizance of an anonymous letter sent by a resident doctor of the Civil Hospital, who himself got infected with the virus, detailing the irregularities in the hospital management and COVID treatment. The bench even questioned, “Does the Health Minister of the State of Gujarat has any idea about the problems which the patients, doctors, nursing staff and other employees are facing as on date? How many times the Health Minister has interacted with the Medical Officers and other staff members in person so as to understand their difficulties and problems?” and called the condition of Civil Hospital to be “worse than a dungeon”. The bench then went on to issue extremely detailed instructions to state government with regards to management of Civil Hospital, including taking punitive action against ward boys leaving patients unattended, to increasing the number of ventilators and where to source them from.
The bench ordered a slew of directions for the state government, which can be read here, in its order dated May 22.
The state government, on May 25, filed an urgent motion for circulation of its civil application which was a fallout of the harsh order dated May 22, which created panic among people and undermined the efforts of Civil Hospital. After going through the application submitted on oath, the court said that if whatever has been stated in the application is true in fact then it appears that due and proper care is being taken for the treatment of the COVID19 patients. While the counsels for state government rubbished the claims made in the anonymous letter of the resident doctor, the court said that it was of the view that the letter should not be overlooked or dismissed. The bench further observed, “We are still of the view that what has been stated in the letter addressed by the resident doctor should be probed by a committee that may be constituted by the State Government…. We direct the State Government to undertake this exercise of looking into the problems which the resident doctors and other staff members are facing. Whatever may be the problem, big or small, the State Government must intervene and resolve the same. After all, the quality of the treatment of the COVID19 patients is dependent on the performance of the resident doctors and the nursing staff.”
Reiterating the role of the Health Minister, the bench said, “It is expected of the Health Minister to discharge his responsibilities for the citizens of the State of Gujarat in the best possible manner….It is the responsibility of the Health Minister to keep a close vigil over the administration and functioning of the Civil Hospital.” The bench concluded the order with a caveat, “The Superintendent of the Civil Hospital and other authorities of the Health Department of Gujarat shall keep themselves ready to find our presence one fine morning on a given day in the Civil Hospital. This would put an end to all the controversies with regard to the functioning of the Civil Hospital at Ahmedabad.”
Read order dated May 25.
The bench was again changed with the Chief Justice once again heading the two judge bench, with Justice JB Pardiwala. The May 29 order took note of the report submitted by the state in response to the May 22 and May 25 orders of the court. The bench said it will not address the issue of migrants since the same was being dealt with by the Supreme Court whereby the court has issued some interim directions as well. The court once again warned private hospitals, while admitting their submissions of discounting their rates, “We make it once again clear that in future, if it is brought to our notice that a particular private / corporate hospital is exploiting the situation and is not adhering to the terms and conditions of the Memorandum of Understanding or is engaged in the act of profiteering, then we shall come down very heavily on such hospitals and we will not hesitate to ask the State Government to institute appropriate legal proceedings against such hospitals in accordance with law.”
The court impleaded Indian Council of Medial Research (ICMR) as party, to understand the rationale behind its testing policy so the same can be implemented in the state’s hospitals. The court said, “We are conscious of the fact that the High Court, in exercise of its writ jurisdiction, should not enter into the domain of policy matters. However, we are dealing with a very delicate issue and that too, at a point of time when the situation is very critical.”
The bench, while being satisfied with the functioning of the Civil hospital stated, “We would still like to keep a close watch of the functioning of the Civil Hospital and if we are not satisfied with the same, then we may have to take some further steps in accordance with law.” It further asked the government to concentrate on a few issues specifically with regards to shortage of manpower, concerns of patients, precautions for doctors and health care staff and so on.
The Court further held, “The Health Minister of the State; the Chief Secretary, Health Department and all other authorities to keep a very close watch on the administration and functioning of the Civil Hospital. There should not be any laxity in this regard. As days are passing by, all steps should be taken to improve the quality of medical treatment and other facilities at the Civil Hospital. No citizen of this country should gather a feeling that he is being treated differently than a person with necessary resources. All the citizens of this country are entitled to protection of their fundamental rights.”
The court, further justifying the directions issued int his suo moto petition stated, “Ordinarily, the High Court would not interfere with the functioning of the State Government. The Court steps in by mandamus when the State fails to perform its duty. The true test of an efficient Government can be determined from its performance in times like the present one. In difficult times, it is expected of any Government to rise to the occasion and protect its citizens. This litigation is in Public Interest. Whatever we are doing as on date is for the welfare of the people at large. All that we are doing is to remind the State Government of its constitutional obligations and the directive policies of the State. In such circumstances, we expect the State Government to accept our orders passed in the Public Interest in the right spirit bearing in mind the paramount consideration of the health and well being of the people as imperatively implicit in the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. All good work that the Government would do will surely be appreciated and hailed. If we find any remiss, negligence or carelessness, we shall come down heavily.”
The order was concluded stating, “The Government knows its obligations towards its citizens very well and should be efficient in discharging its duties. We would like to observe that the State Government has taken up this litigation in Public Interest very seriously. All that is now required is to remain vigilant, careful and active.”
The court also expressed its displeasure over the unnecessary debates and comments basis the court’s orders and stated that the PIL should not be used for political mileage and that in times of crisis “we need to bind, not bicker”.
Read order dated May 29.