COVID-19 has restricted all activities, including those in the highest court of India. Here is a compilation of all the cases heard by the Supreme Court, relating to questions on the implementation of COVID-19-related government policies/orders. Follow LIVE Updates
On deferring payment of taxes
* On March 20, the Supreme Court stayed the orders passed by the High Courts of Kerala and Allahabad on March 19, which effectively deferred the recovery of all taxes till April 6 in view of the coronavirus outbreak.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta mentioned the stays on behalf of the Centre before the Bench Justices A M Khanwilkar, Vineet Saran, and Aniruddha Bose. The Bench agreed to hear the matter and subsequently stayed the orders.
The court also stayed all proceedings related to this pending before the High Courts, while taking on record the Centre’s position on the ongoing health emergency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Centre’s petition said: “The (High) Courts have exceeded their jurisdiction in giving broad omnibus directions to defer recovery proceedings by various tax authorities of Central and State Governments as well as by banks under Section 14 of the SARFAESI Act, till 06.04.2020, in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers inasmuch as the Courts have encroached upon functions of the Executive and have transgressed into the realm of taking a policy decision without any notice to the Government of India.”
In an interim order passed on March 19, the Allahabad High Court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to defer any proceedings relating to recovery, auction, eviction, and demolition for two weeks, in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
The High Court issued the following direction: “All the recovery proceedings at the end of the district administration, financial institutions and other administrative bodies/authorities/agencies and otherwise at the end of the instrumentalities of the State shall be deferred for a period of two weeks i.e. till 6.4.2020.”
* April 15: On a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) of activist Harnam Singh, calling for suitable directions to government authorities to ensure protection of the right to life of Safai Karamcharis/sanitation workers, given the pandemic, the Solicitor General said the allegations were false, and that the WHO guidelines were being followed. The Supreme Court accepted the submission and disposed of the petition.
The Order reads: “Learned Solicitor General appearing on behalf of the Union of India submits that the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation are binding on the Government of India and they are meticulously following the said guidelines. Recording the statement made by the learned Solicitor General, we dispose of the instant writ petition.”
* April 15: A Bench of Justices N V Ramana, S K Kaul, and B R Gavai dismissed a PIL calling for immediate relief to the agricultural community following the lockdown. The petition filed by Swami Agnivesh expressed concern at the non-implementation of the March 28 guidelines issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, which exempted agriculture and allied activities.
The order dismissed the PIL, recording the Solicitor General’s statement that there will be “full monitoring and implementation of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Agriculture.” The Solicitor General also expressed unhappiness with what he termed “self-employment generating petitions”, and said the courts must desist from entertaining such pleas.
On releasing prisoners from jail in the wake of the pandemic
* On March 23, a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India had called on state governments and Union Territories to consider decongesting of jails, and to set up “high-level committees” to allow classification of prisoners who could be released, who had been convicted for seven years or less. Guidelines issued by the bench consisting of the CJI and Justices L Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, included consultation that this committee could have to decide on how to ensure jails are not centres of spread of COVID-19.
This was a suo motu matter taken up by the Supreme Court on March 16, where they had asked for responses from states and UTs. The Bench had cited high occupancy figures of jails being “117.6%”, from the National Crime Research Bureau. Under trials were exempted from physical appearance and video-conferences suggested instead.
On April 13, Attorney General K K Venugopal argued that the release and transportation of the prisoners may itself result in transmission of coronavirus from prisons or detention centres to locations where there was no COVID-19. The Chief Justice-headed bench released “supplementary measures” saying that now no patient with COVID-19 would be released, the logic being to prevent the spread of the disease in the non-jail population. It held its March 23 order to be valid for “correctional homes, detention centres and protection homes”.
On detention centre detainees
On detainees in detention centres of suspected ‘foreigners’ in Assam, a state-based NGO, Liberty and Justice Initiative, moved an amendment to an order last year, where those who had served three years would be allowed to go, with a surety of Rs 100,000.
In the situation of the pandemic, the Supreme Court ruled that those detainees who had spent two years and with a surety of Rs 5,000 could be now released.
Attorney General K K Venugopal argued that the released detainees could “mix” with the population, and would be hard to find, but the bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said the conditions and materially changed after the advent of the disease now.
On the issue of release from prisons, AG Venugopal maintained that such a release during lockdown was not feasible.
However, CJI Bobde termed the apprehension about a coronavirus positive inmate infecting others outside, as “hypothetical”.
The CJI had also questioned as to how the state will look after the possibility of disappearance by foreigners once they are released.
To this, Colin Gonsalves, arguing for National Forum for Prison Reforms, said, “They are not foreigners in real sense. (They have been) living here for five decades but they don’t have papers to show.”
On testing costs for Covid-19
On April 8, the Supreme Court held that all tests — whether in government laboratories or in private ones — should be free. This was in response to a petition filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi, as an ICMR in an advisory issued on March 17 had capped the cost for the test in accredited but private labs at Rs 4,500.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the Centre was yet to come up with a view as it was a “developing situation”.
The Supreme Court also observed: “Private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis.”
On April 14, a bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra Bhat amended its free-test order, now saying that only the “poorest” would get tested for free.
Solicitor General Mehta, appearing for ICMR now, said around 500 million people are already covered under the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, and can get tested for free even in government and private labs. ICMR also contended that since the court was not fully apprised of the ground situation, data and expert advice, and hadn’t asked the government for such information, it would be “prudent” to let the executive decide.
On Indians abroad coming home
On April 13, hearing a petition by Madhurima Mridul, a bench headed by CJI Bobde observed that a person stranded abroad cannot be brought to India just yet. “Stay where you are” he observed.
The Centre, via the Ministry of External Affairs, had made a detailed submission of the infeasibility of bringing vast numbers of Indian nationals stranded abroad, given the danger of infecting the local population, the relatively scarce resources and the problems with enforcing quarantine.
The submission by the government noted that the advice to Indian nationals abroad had been to “stay put”.
On migrant labour during the lockdown
On a petition filed by activist and ex-bureaucrat Harsh Mander and argued by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan on providing relief to migrant labour after the lockdown was imposed, the Supreme Court bench, led by Chief Justice Bobde, and comprising Justices Sanjay Kaul and Deepak Gupta, on April 7 first engaged in detail.
The Chief Justice asked the petitioners that if the migrant workers were being provided meals, then why did they need money for meals — to which Bhushan replied that they needed money “to send to their families back home”.
Chief Justice Bobde on Bhushan’s submissions said, “We cannot say at this stage that they are not getting the food.”
SG Mehta said call centres had been set up by the Home Ministry for the purpose. When Bhushan raised the matter of what he termed “inedible food” being fed to migrants at shelter camps, the Chief Justice said, “We are not experts and don’t intend to interfere without knowing what it is all about. We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We will ask the government to create a helpline for complaints.”
On April 14, the bench comprising Chief Justice Bobde and Justice Nageswar Rao asked the government: “What steps are being taking for these migrant labourers? What are the minimum wages given? How you are taking care of these migrant labourers? The Delhi government has announced Rs 5,000 for each. But what is the Centre doing?”
Mehta said rice and other food products are being provided to them without restricting these to the ration card entitlements.
The bench said it had not received the Status Report referred to by the government, and posted the hearing for April 21, to which the petitioners objected, saying that vast numbers of “4 crores” were involved.
“You yourself know, we can’t order what you are demanding. You say there are 4 crore people. How can we order Rs 5,000 per person. We don’t have the documents you are referring to! How can we pass directions to make any payment? If we have to pass all the directions that are there in your petition we will have to start running the government,” the bench told Bhushan.
The court, however, said that the pandemic is an unprecedented problem, and while the government is taking necessary steps, this is not a problem that can be solved in one day.