Updated: April 23, 2021 5:43:29 am
The Supreme Court Thursday took suo motu cognizance of some of the key issues related to Covid-19 management, including the supply of oxygen and essential drugs and declaration of lockdowns. Noting that the matter was being heard in several high courts, “creating some confusion” and “diversion of resources”, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde said there is “almost a national emergency” and asked the Centre to submit a “national plan” to deal with it.
“We see that six High Courts are taking action. We appreciate that. But this is creating some confusion and diversion… We want to point out four issues — supply of oxygen, supply of essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination, declaration of lockdown. We will issue notice for a national plan on these issues,” the three-judge Bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, said, while adding that some high courts might prioritise one set of people and another, a different group.
Issuing notices to the Centre, states, Union territories and parties which approached the high courts, the Bench observed orally that the Supreme Court may withdraw to itself some issues from the high courts, while noting in its order that, “Drugs, oxygen and vaccination availability and distribution are being carried out by government including the Central government according to protocols established by the health authorities.”
The Bench added, “We expect the Central government to place before this Court a national plan for dealing with the above services and supplies during (the) pandemic” and sought to know “why uniform orders be not passed by this Court in relation to” the four issues flagged by it.
The Bench also observed that it is of the view that the power to declare lockdowns rests with the State and “this should not be by judicial decision”.
Earlier this week, the Allahabad High Court had directed the Uttar Pradesh government to impose lockdown in five worst-hit districts. The Supreme Court had stayed the order after the state approached it.
In its order, the Bench said notwithstanding the government’s efforts, “a certain amount of panic has been generated and people have invoked the jurisdiction of several high courts… such as Delhi, Bombay, Sikkim, MP, Calcutta, Allahabad and Gujarat. 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… prima facie, we are inclined to take the view that the distribution of these essential services and supplies must be done in an even handed manner according to the advice of the health authorities, which undoubtedly take into account relevant factors like severity, susceptibility, the number of people affected and the local availability of resources”.
The Supreme Court Bench observed that its directive was not meant to stop the high courts from entertaining matters related to the pandemic. “You may go ahead and present your plan (to the high courts). It is not to supersede any (high court) order as of now,” Justice Bhat told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who wanted to know how the Centre should proceed with the matters pending before the high courts given that the Supreme Court was taking cognizance.
The Court also asked the Centre to report on whether a coordinating body for states existed, or was required, to ensure “logistical support for inter-state and intra-state transportation and distribution of the above resources”.
The Supreme Court appointed Senior Advocate Harish Salve as Amicus Curiae to assist it, and observed orally that it will hear the Centre and Salve Friday and decide on hearing the others after that.
The Court also agreed to hear Friday a plea by Vedanta Ltd, represented by Salve, seeking permission to operationalise its Tamil Nadu plant, shut down in May 2018 over environmental concerns, to manufacture oxygen for Covid-19 patients.
The company said it can manufacture 1,000 tonnes of oxygen every day and it was ready to supply this free. Salve submitted that if permission was granted today, Vedanta would be able to start production within five-six days.
Supporting the plea, Mehta told the Bench that “the country is in dire need of oxygen and the Centre is augmenting supplies from whichever source”. He added that Vedanta could operationalise its plant only to manufacture oxygen.
Senior Advocate C S Vaidyanathan, appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, opposed this, noting the “trust deficit” among people regarding the plant violating environmental norms (a protest in May 2018 had left 13 dead in police firing). He added that the Supreme Court had earlier rejected a plea to allow reopening of the plant and urged the Court to hear the matter only next week.
The Bench however did not seem impressed by the objection and said, “We understand all this. We will ensure compliance of all environmental norms…We are on the oxygen plant… There is almost a national emergency and you (Tamil Nadu) don’t put spokes in the solution.”
The Solicitor General added, “Between protecting the environment and protecting human life, we must lean in favour of protecting human life”.
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