SC finally wakes up to India’s worsening COVID-19 situation, legal eagles fret

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Express News Service

NEW DELHI:  The Supreme Court on Thursday took suo motu cognisance of the health emergency caused by Covid-19 pandemic though a clutch of high courts are already seized of the matter, a decision that was panned by a section of senior lawyers.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde took note of the fact that high courts of Delhi, Bombay, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, Calcutta and Allahabad were dealing with issues related to Covid and asked the Centre to present a national plan to face the health crisis.

“The situation in various parts of the country is grim. There seems to be a sudden surge in the number of covid patients and mortality. Nonetheless it seems that a certain amount of panic has been generated and people have invoked the jurisdiction of several high courts in the country seeking relief,” the order read. 

“They (HCs) are exercising jurisdiction in best interest. But it is creating confusion and diversion of resources,” the bench observed, adding, “We are almost in a national emergency.”

“The high courts have passed certain orders which may have the effect of accelerating and prioritising the services to a certain set of people and slowing down the availability of these resources to certain other groups whether the groups are local, regional or otherwise,” the detailed order stated. The bench said it intended to transfer to itself some of the related issues pending in various high courts.

But senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi later said he completely disagreed with the view of the Supreme Court.

“High Courts are competent to deal with the issue as it unfolds in the concerned state… It’s a retrograde step. High Court will become redundant now,” he reasoned. 

Appointing senior advocate Harish Salve as amicus curiae to assist it, the bench issued notice to the Centre and posted the matter for Friday, the last working day of CJI Bobde. Justice N V Ramana will take over as the next CJI on Saturday.

During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asked the bench, “Do we respond to high courts now or we respond here?”

“We will issue notice to the Centre and then we will issue notice to high courts and eventually we will bring some issues here. All we want is a national plan on these issues,” the CJI said.

The bench told Mehta it didn’t intend to supersede any order of the high courts as of now. 

Meanwhile, a lawyers’ body Thursday moved the Supreme Court, which has taken suo motu cognisance of prevailing grim pandemic situation in the country, urging it to allow various high courts to deal with the COVID-19 related issues at local level saying they “appear to be best suited to deal with the situation”.

Earlier in the day, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde took note of the pandemic situation due to sudden surge in COVID-19 cases and mortality and said it expected the Centre to come out with a “national plan” to deal with distribution of essential services and supplies, including oxygen and drugs.

The bench, also comprising justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, said it would also deal with the method and manner of COVID-19 vaccination in the country and the aspect relating to judicial power of the high courts to declare lockdown amid the pandemic.

The top court, however, neither stayed the proceedings before the high courts nor transferred to itself the cases pending before high courts.

The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), through its President and senior advocate Vikas Singh, has filed the plea seeking to intervene as a party in the suo-motu case titled as “In Re: Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic” and said the under the given situation, the high courts are best suited to deal with local issues.

“The High Courts, situated almost invariably in the capital of the states, are in a better position to seek immediate reports from the local administration and pass directions and orders for immediate removal of difficulties arising in treatment of the infected patients depending upon local emergent situation. The State machineries are lacking on various aspects and High Courts are suitably dealing with the issues prevailing at local level within their territorial jurisdiction”, the plea said.

The plea, also filed by SCBA Secretary Ardhendumauli Kumar Prasad through lawyer Rahul Kaushik, said various petitions have been filed in high courts and they are considering the pandemic related issues and issuing directions keeping in view the local situation within their territorial jurisdictions.

“That SCBA is aware of some larger issues like inter-state free and fast movement of essential supplies related to treatment of infected patients as well as basic needs of general public for survival during this misfortune, issues of migrant labourers returning home due to lockdown imposed in the area of their employment, which definitely require a centralised consideration and this Court may take up and resolve those issues by calling upon concerned authorities,” the plea said.

It said there was “absence of preparedness in advance for the present situation by the central and state machinery” and hence, some difficulties are arising at local level and they are being resolved by various high courts.

“The High Courts appear to be best suited to deal with the situation, hence it would be proper to allow then High Courts to continue dealing with the present issue,” it said.

India registered over 3.14 lakh new coronavirus cases in a day, the highest-ever single-day count recorded in any country, taking the total tally of COVID-19 cases in the country to 1,59,30,965.

According to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Thursday, a total of 3,14,835 fresh infections were registered in a span of 24 hours, while the death toll increased to 1,84,657 with a record 2,104 new fatalities.

No reason to appoint Salve: Dave

“There is no reason why Mr Harish Salve should again and again be appointed by Chief Justice Bobde as amicus curiae. He has been a non-resident and living in London for a long time. He does not know the realities of India,” says Dushyant Dave.

Let HCs hear matter: SC Bar body

“High Courts appear to be best suited to deal with the situation, hence it would be proper to allow the Hon’ble High Courts to continue dealing with the present issue,” the Supreme Court Bar Association’s intervention petition before the top court.

Scrutiny of four points

The court said it wanted to take up supply of oxygen and essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination and the power to declare lockdown.

“We want the power to clear lockdown to be with states and it should not be a judicial decision,” the CJI said.

(With PTI Inputs)



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