The Supreme Court on Friday indicated that it cannot embark on a “roving inquiry” while hearing a writ petition to order a Commission of Inquiry into the “gross mismanagement” of the COVID-19 pandemic by the government.
The petition was filed by six former bureaucrats, represented by senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan, contending that mismanagement occurred at multiple levels, from not stocking enough protective and medical equipment to combat the health crisis to lack of early checking of incoming international passengers to the handling the exodus of migrant workers during the lockdown.
They said the extensive lockdown, which was imposed overnight, had a “devastating effect” on the jobs of ordinary people and violated their fundamental right to live with dignity by earning their livelihood. The lockdown has had a crippling effect on the economy.
“Just because Mr. Dave thinks the COVID preparation is not proper does not mean the court should enter into it and conduct a roving inquiry,” Justice L. Nageswara Rao, heading a three-judge Bench, told the senior advocate.
Mr. Dave, in turn, pointed out that Parliament is not functioning and the court is saying that its review powers are limited. He asked whether this meant that the Executive has a free run.
He pointed to how other countries have their Parliaments monitoring the government’s preparations to fight the pandemic.
“A 130 crore population is suffering. This is for the welfare of the people,” Mr. Dave pressed on.
Justice Rao asked what specific relief the petitioners were seeking. “Is there any transgression of law?” Justice Rao asked.
The court said there was a separate “COVID Bench” which was examining the various pleas in connection with various public health welfare issues in connection with the pandemic. Justice Rao suggested that the petitioners place their concerns about public welfare before that Bench.
The court finally adjourned the case to next week when Mr. Bhushan intervened to say that the petitioners would want to argue their case before the current Bench.
The petition filed by the former bureaucrats, who include K.P. Fabian, M.G. Devasahayam and Amit Bhaduri, said the Centre’s response to the pandemic and its “deleterious impact” on the lives and livelihoods of the citizens was a “definite matter of public importance and warrants appointment of a Inquiry Commission.”
It has alleged that the nationwide lockdown, which was announced on March 24, was “arbitrary, irrational and without due consultation with experts or State governments.”
“In spite of being the harshest and most restrictive lockdown in the world, it has failed to arrest the spread of the disease,” the plea said.
The bureaucrats contended that the government failed to draw up a national plan and guidelines for providing minimum standards of relief to vulnerable sections of the society under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. There was delay in ensuring adequate supplies of personal protective equipment for safety of healthcare workers during the pandemic. The Centre failed to undertake effective measures for containing the transmission of virus even after being notified about it by the World Health Organisation in early January this year.