While PPE-clad doctors and healthcare workers have been battling coronavirus on the ground, high court judges in their suits, ties and robes have been demanding answers from the state and central governments on oxygen supply and transport, availability of medicines, observation of Covid-19 norms during elections, medicine shortage, and RT-PCR test numbers. It is almost as if the high courts have become Covid-19 warriors themselves, converting their virtual courtrooms into war rooms of sorts, issuing some enforceable orders, some not so much.
Over three-and-a-half lakh people are testing positive for Covid-19 on a daily basis in India — the highest count of daily infections in the world — with more than 3,000 daily deaths recorded for at least three days now. Even with allegations of data fudging, the country accounted for nearly one in every four deaths in the world due to the virus as on 28 April.
Amid all this, almost a dozen high courts — including that of Delhi, Madras, Karnataka, Gujarat, Allahabad, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Telangana, Patna, and Bombay — have over the past week dealt with several aspects of the crisis and challenges that this Covid-19 wave has brought along.
And that is why the high courts of India are ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
‘Should probably be booked for murder’
Every day of the past week, high courts across India have heard petitions and applications on some aspects of Covid-19 management, questioning the state governments or the Centre and have even pulled up authorities like the Election Commission of India (ECI) on their preparedness or rather the lack of it to deal with the second wave.
On Monday, the Madras High Court made headlines when it came down heavily on the ECI for allowing political rallies during the pandemic. It went to the extent of saying that the ECI is “singularly responsible for the second wave” and that its officers “should be booked on murder charges probably”.
On Tuesday, the Karnataka High Court pointed out that the number of beds available to coronavirus patients in the state capital Bengaluru was not proportional to the demand and called the situation “alarming”. The Gujarat High Court has initiated a suo motu petition too — much like it did last year even before the first case was detected in the state — and pulled up the state government for “painting a rosy picture” instead of acknowledging the ground reality. The Allahabad High Court took note of the death of 135 teachers on panchayat poll duty, observing that “it appears that neither the police nor (the) Election Commission did anything to save the people on election duty from getting infected by this deadly virus”.
On Wednesday, the Uttarakhand High Court issued a total of 12 directions to the state government, and the Rajasthan High Court constituted state- and district-level committees to alleviate the difficulties being faced by the general public in the state.
On Thursday, the Telangana High Court criticised the State Election Commission for holding municipal elections at such a time, and the Patna High Court called the Bihar government’s action plan to tackle the second wave of Covid-19 “wrong” and issued an email ID for people to directly submit their complaints regarding the lack of oxygen supply to it. The same day, the Madras High Court also censured the Centre for the “situation we are in” and asked, “What were you doing for the past 10 to 15 months?”
The multiple questions of Delhi HC
In Delhi, which recorded 395 deaths due to Covid-19 on Thursday, the highest since the pandemic hit the country a year ago, and 24,235 cases with a positivity rate of 32.82 per cent, the high court has been monitoring the situation on a daily basis.
The petitions are being heard by a bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli, who have been hearing the pleas every day for at least three-to-five hours, with lawyers even reading out real-time SOS tweets from hospitals.
This bench has since called the massive rise in cases a tsunami, warned it will “hang” any person who tries to obstruct oxygen supplies to hospitals, asked the Delhi government to “pull up its socks”, spoken of “shaken” confidence and even said that if the government cannot manage the situation, the court will ask the Centre to step in. On Thursday, the bench turned its ire towards the central government, asking it to explain why states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were allocated more liquid oxygen than they asked for while Delhi was allocated “far less than its requirement”.
All this, while Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the central government, often raised objections to various observations made by the court, saying they would “create panic” and asked the court to consider “trusting the system”.
Meanwhile, three benches of the Bombay High Court — principal seat in Mumbai, Aurangabad bench and Nagpur bench — have been hearing petitions, suo motu and otherwise, on the Covid crisis in the State.
Judicial empathy or overreach?
Of course, the implementation of several of these orders remains a different question altogether, with lines between the executive and judiciary getting blurred sometimes.
Take, for instance, last week’s Allahabad High Court order imposing a near lockdown in five Uttar Pradesh cities. The order was stayed within a day by the Supreme Court, for being clear overextension of judicial powers. But at the same time, there’s the Delhi High Court, which is trying to act as a bridge between all stakeholders — hospitals, oxygen suppliers and the government — highlighting concerns while accepting its own limitations. So when a lawyer broke down asking for an ICU bed for his brother-in-law during the virtual hearing on Thursday, the court knew that it cannot ask a hospital to prioritise one patient over another when there is a lack of resources everywhere, but it requested the lawyers for various hospitals present during the hearing to check with their hospitals and try to get him some help. However, the lawyer informed the court Friday evening that his brother-in-law wouldn’t be needing any help anymore because he had passed away. All the court could then do was “record its helplessness” and observe that the “State has failed…to protect the right to life of its citizens”.
Whether such an attempt at bridging the gap is judicial overreach or necessitated by the central and state governments’ unpreparedness are all questions for another day. For now, it’s important to see that several high courts are asking the right questions during this time of crisis.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)