New Delhi: Ever since the Covid-19 outbreak reached India, the Supreme Court has been flooded with public interest litigations (PILs) demanding various measures for tackling the crisis.
Over 40 PILs have been filed since March, seeking relief and welfare measures for a host of parties, from migrant labourers, sanitation workers, medical professionals to critically ill patients, farmers, Indians stranded abroad, tribals, laid-off journalists and even zoo animals.
In fact, up till a few days ago since the lockdown was imposed, the court was only hearing urgent matters, most of which have been PILs. On Saturday, the court decided to take up other crucial matters that require “short hearing”, and death penalty cases.
Another handful of PILs have attempted to draw the court’s attention to the testing and treatment methods adopted by the government.
For instance, one PIL, filed by three lawyers and a law student, demanded the Centre be directed to begin mass house-to-house testing for the coronavirus.
Another plea, filed by journalist Prashant Tandon, sought an increase in the number of testing labs and quarantine centres. A doctor’s PIL asked for rapid antibody tests to be conducted as a screening tool, while economist Pentapati Pulla Rao’s plea demanded that Covid-19 tests be conducted among tribals living along the Godavari river valley area.
On similar lines, People for Better Treatment, an NGO, has challenged the use of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat serious cases in India. Its president, Dr. Kunal Saha, who filed the plea, has claimed that the use of the drugs is primarily based on “anecdotal evidence” and not “direct scientific data”.
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Advocates crowd the list
Amongst the petitioners in the Supreme Court are a few who regularly approach the courts with PILs. For instance, lawyer M.L. Sharma, who has been rapped by the Supreme Court in the past for filing frivolous pleas, had sought the quashing of the Centre’s decision to set up the PM-CARES Fund which invited donations for Covid-19 efforts.
Lawyer Amit Sahni, who has also filed a few PILs in the past, has approached the court with two petitions. One demands the waiver of interest on EMIs during the lockdown and another seeks resolving shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) kits for healthcare professionals, police, military and paramilitary personnel.
Also on the list of petitioners is the Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), which had earlier filed a PIL for video recording of court proceedings and another one for WhatsApp’s compliance with data localisation norms with regard to its payment services. CASC has now filed two PILs, seeking declaration of a financial emergency and another for quashing FIRs filed under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code during the lockdown. Section 188 pertains to not following orders issued by a public servant.
Former IAS officer Harsh Mander, whose PIL interventions include those against inhuman living conditions in Assam detention centres, mob lynching and the Citizenship Amendment Act, has filed a PIL asking the government to pay wages to all migrant workers during the lockdown.
Advocate A.P. Singh, who was in the news for his defence tactics on behalf of the three convicted in the 2012 December gang rape and murder, is also one of the petitioners. He has filed a PIL to bring back 600 MBBS students belonging to Himachal from Ukraine.
Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava, whose PIL seeking the death penalty for rapists eventually led to an ordinance on giving the death penalty for raping children below 12 years, has now moved the Supreme Court seeking shelter, food and medical aid for migrant labourers.
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No relief in most cases
In most cases heard so far, the top court has refused relief after accepting the central government’s submissions that it was handling the situation.
For instance, in an order passed on 31 March, the court expressed satisfaction with the Centre’s measures while hearing Srivastava’s PIL on migrant workers. It also accepted the government’s submission that the panic amongst migrant workers was caused by “fake news that the lockdown would last for more than three months”.
Relying on these submissions, it directed the media to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments” on the pandemic.
While hearing Mander’s PIL for financial assistance to migrant workers, the court refused to direct the government to pay them minimum wages, remarking that if it did so, it would amount to the Supreme Court running the government.
Other PILs, like those challenging the setting up of PM-CARES Fund, demanding alternate Unani and homeopathic medicines for treatment of Covid-19, seeking relaxation of medical expenses for treatment, and calling for the nationalisation of the healthcare sector were dismissed by the court at the threshold itself.
A few PIL petitioners were also pulled up by the court. For instance, the court Tuesday came down heavily on a lawyer who had sought GST exemption for face masks and sanitisers.
The three-judge bench pulled up the petitioner and warned they would impose costs on him for wasting the court’s time. “Just because there is no other litigation work does not mean you file such PILs. We will impose costs,” the court said.
While hearing several other PILs Tuesday, including one for evacuation of fishermen stranded in Iran, the court urged petitioners to “let the government handle the situation”.
In the case of a PIL filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi, which demanded direction to the Centre to provide free Covid-19 testing for all citizens in India, the court stepped in.
In its 8 April hearing, the court opined that the cap of Rs 4,500 placed on private lab tests by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was not feasible. However, this order didn’t last a week.
On 13 April, the same bench comprising justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Ravindra Bhat modified its order. It allowed private labs to continue charging money for Covid-19 tests, ruling that it “never intended to make testing free for those who can afford the payment of testing fee” fixed by ICMR.
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‘Messiah complex’ versus genuine concern
Senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi told ThePrint that he didn’t “agree with these PILs” since the court was an adjudicator and not a policy maker.
“This is an unprecedented crisis for an entire humanity. Courts are not meant for policy formulation. Courts are adjudicatory bodies, meant for upholding the Constitution. Merely to say that the court should monitor or give directions completely upsets the applecart of the government,” he said.
Tulsi asserted that decisiveness was important in a crisis and therefore, there shouldn’t be any “external pressure” on policy issues.
“The government can consult the opposition and experts in the field. They are doing everything that is possible. There may be a difference of opinion amongst people but ultimately it is the government that has to take a decision and be accountable for these decisions,” he added.
On the other hand, Supreme Court lawyer Shivam Singh believes that people are increasingly taking to PILs to seek recourse during the lockdown because they have several grievances relating to execution of schemes or, in some cases, the non-existence of schemes.
He told ThePrint that people almost feel compelled to approach the courts because they feel that “this is the only available route to make an impact and ensure justice for the others”.
“There is between limited to no access to government machinery or first-hand information and people can’t see the extent of assistance being extended. This coupled with media reportage of extreme deprivation in certain quarters is almost tugging at the heart strings of people,” Singh said.
But he also contended that while some of these causes were genuine, “there’s a lot else which is driven by the intense desire to occupy prime time coverage and newspaper headlines”.
“This craving is almost a litigant’s equivalent of the messiah complex,” he added.
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