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The Gujarat High Court has suo motu issued a number of directions - many of them already followed - to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in the state [Suo Motu v. State of Gujarat - PIL No. 42 of 2020]
The directions were issued in batch of petitions filed before the Court, seeking various reliefs.
In an order passed today, the Bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Ashutosh Shastri made a note of the measures already taken by the state government.
The measures, introduced as part of the Gujarat Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020, include:
Dedicated helpline 104 for facilitating calls relating to Coronavirus
Sealing of the geographical area and barring entry and exit of population from the containment area.
Closure of schools, offices and banning public gatherings.
Banning vehicular movement in the area.
Initiating active and passing surveillance of n- COVID-19 cases.
Hospital isolation of all suspected cases.
Designating any Government / Private building as containment unit for isolation of the cases.
Suspension of workshops, seminars or conferences and to keep them on hold till 31st March, 2020
Admit any person who requires isolation in case he or she has a history of visiting any area where N- COVID-19 is endemic and symptomatic.
All schools, colleges, polytechnics, auditoriums, swimming pools, tuition/coaching classes with immediate effect till 29th March, 2020.
Spitting in public would entail a fine of Rs.500/-.
Closure of all gymnasiums, water parks, auditoriums, amusement parks, party plots till 31st March, 2020.
Transport activities from Gujarat to Maharashtra have been kept in abeyance till 31st March, 2020.
Advocate General Kamal Trivedi further told the Court that the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal and all revenue courts of the state have decided to defer ongoing matters till 31st March, 2020, and that no ex-parte decision would to be taken in the absence of any party.
It was also submitted by the state that anyone coming from outside who does not show any symptoms at the Airport is allowed to go home after giving self declaration/undertaking that they would do home quarantine of 14 days.
Despite this measure, the Court noted that three persons who were tested positive did not honour the self-declaration/undertaking, and that they had travelled from one place to other and possibly passed the virus to a large number of persons.
The Advocate General stated that the current status of positive cases in Gujarat has risen to 5. However, he assured the Court that the state is fully geared up to tackle the Coronavirus outbreak, for which, all possible precautions are being taken.
The Court also dealt with an application filed by one Nipun Singhvi, seeking a direction to the Gujarat Real Estate Regulatory Authority, Gandhinagar and Gujarat Real Estate Appellate Tribunal, Gandhinagar to defer all hearing except urgent matters till March 31. AG Trivedi submitted that directions in this regard have already been issued.
In another petition, Advocate Khemraj R Koshti sought diagnosis and treatment for persons affected by Coronavirus free of cost. He also sought a direction to the state to publish in the public domain a daily update on the situation regarding COVID-19.
In response, the AG stated that investigation, laboratory tests and treatment of suspected and affected persons is being done at the cost of the state.
He further submitted that in order to avoid any kind of fake news being published or circulated in social, digital, or print media, the Government of India has already set up an app named COVID-19, which is continuously updated with all relevant information with respect to the entire country.
While hearing this matter, the Court was also informed of the measures taken by the Western Railways to curb the spread of COVID-19.
These include removing of blankets (available on demand) and curtains from AC coaches, frequent cleaning of passenger interface areas, such as handles, hand rest, etc, thermal screening of passengers, isolation ward at Sabarmati Railway Station, increasing price of platform ticket to discourage unwanted persons from entering railway stations, and spears of awareness at stations.
The Court also heard Vishwas Shah, Advocate in another writ petition seeking a direction to District Magistrates and Mamlatdars not to resort to Section 14 of the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002 (SARFAESI Act), which allows taking possession of assets. It also sought a direction to banks and financial institutions not to take measures for auction/recovery under the SARFAESI Act.
The plea also sought a direction to the authorities not to undertake eviction/demolition under any law, until March 31.
AG Trivedi stated that the state would pass appropriate direction relating to suspension of action under Section 14 of the SARFAESI Act, 2002 till 31st March, 2020. He also said that appropriate instructions have been issued by the state government with respect to staying eviction/demolition activities.
It was further submitted on behalf of the Centre that the Debt Recovery Tribunal and its Appellate Tribunal would defer all other matters except urgent mentioned matters.
With regard to the prayer to restrain banks and financial institutions from taking measures for auction/recovery under the SARFAESI Act, 2002, the Court noted that directions to this effect were issued by the High Courts of Kerala and Allahabad. However, the Supreme Court today stayed both these orders.
In light of this, the Court noted,
“As such, we are not inclined to grant this relief. It is for the Central Government, Ministry of Finance to take a call on the same and no blanket order can be granted.”
It was further brought to the notice of the Court that the NCLT, Ahmedabad is hearing matters and passing adverse orders in the absence of counsel.
Moreover, the Special Secretary, Revenue Department and Deputy Collectors are conducting land matters when there is no such urgency.
Another instance of the Sessions Court, Ahmedabad recording evidence where witnesses are present was brought up before the Court
Insofar as the Special Secretary, Revenue Department and the Deputy Collectors are concerned, AG Trivedi stated that appropriate steps have already been taken. The Court further noted,
“The Sessions Court, Ahmedabad, recording evidence could be in a stray case as we are also conscious of the fact that circulars have been issued to all the Principal District Judges and Principal Judges to deal only with urgent matters.”
With regard to the Bar, Senior Advocate and President of the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association Yatin Oza submitted that the Bar room, tea room and library of the High Court have been shut down completely. Messages have been circulated on all groups to advocates not to come to Court unless in cases of extreme urgency, he stated.
The Court further urged people not to visit places of worship. The order states,
“Since the spread of Corona Virus is contagious, gathering of large numbers has to be strictly avoided without fail. If people out of their sentiments continue to gather in large number at places of worship, the entire efforts to take precautionary measures for the spread of COVID-19 would be frustrated. We would therefore request one and all to refrain from visiting their places of worship and offer their prayer/puja/service from home instead of gathering at the place of worship.”
Gujarat High Court
Thus, it was directed that the authorities issue necessary circular to all the District Magistrates/Commissioners of Police and Superintendents of Police to ensure that no gathering takes place at any of the places of worship in the State. The Court went on to observe,
“We however do not mean that the daily puja/aarti/service/offering of prayer (namaz) may be stopped in such places of worship but the management of all the religious places of worship may perform it without making it open to public.”
While noting the state’s efforts to curb the spread of Coronavirus thus far, the High Court directed to continue its efforts to check, prevent, control and treat the affected or suspected persons of the COVID-19 and file a status report within March 27.
The Bench also highlighted the importance of spreading awareness of the pandemic at the grassroots level.
Where facilities of print, digital, or social media may not be available, the government was directed to sensitize and make aware the residents of the suburbans, semi-rural, rural and tribal areas.
In this regard, it was informed that the Gujarat State Legal Services Authority has issued directions to all District Legal Services Authorities to organize various programmes in order to sensitize and bring awareness amongst all.
The order ends with a direction to the Registry to send copy of this order to all concerned including print and digital media by fax, email, WhatsApp or special messenger.
Among the lawyers representing various petitioners and applicants in these matters were Senior Advocates Mihir Thakore and Yatin Oza, and Advocates Vishwas Shah, Masoom Shah, BV Shah, Vishal Dave, Hiral Mehta, Siddharth Dave, Parth Bhatt, Advocate General Kamal Trivedi, Advocates Krina Calla, JK Shah, Nisha Thakore, Vrunda Shah, and amicus curiae Brijesh Trivedi.