In the suo motu case registered to monitor COVID-19 management in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the Madras High Court sought information on when oxygen production is expected to begin at Vedanta's Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi.
The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy heard the suo motu case briefly this afternoon, before adjourning the matter until tomorrow since the newly elected government is yet to appoint its law officers.
As such, the Bench noted that the government may not be adequately represented today, although Government Advocate K Suresh was present for the hearing.
Earlier, arguments for the AIADMK government were led by former Advocate General Vijay Narayan. Narayan resigned from the post a day before the declaration of Assembly election results in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has now been voted into power. DMK Chief MK Stalin is slated to be sworn in as Tamil Nadu's next Chief Minister tomorrow.
Highlights of the High Court hearing today include the following.
The Bench noted that it has been a week since the government permitted the re-opening of the Sterlite plant.
Additional Solicitor General R Sankaranarayanan undertook to file a report on the issue.
The Court noted that the added oxygen production would be for the benefit of the whole country, reiterating further that the supply of oxygen must be equitably shared pan-India, on reasonable considerations.
"Centre may not have adequate supply (of oxygen). We may have to generate some of our own. Find out whether Sterlite (will produce) because it has been a week since it was opened...There is no point in Delhi cornering everything for itself or West Bengal or (some other State). We must all equitably share it," the Chief Justice orally observed.
In the course of the hearing, Government Pleader N Mala, appearing for the Government of Puducherry, informed the Court that there is no oxygen shortage in the Union Territory and that it has three oxygen manufacturing plants producing about 82 metric tonnes (MT) per day. Puducherry's requirement, on the other hand, was 20 MT, the Court was told.
On a related note, Senior Advocate P Wilson today told the Court that five southern states had recently consented to the allocation of about 500 MT of oxygen to Tamil Nadu. However, the same is being stalled by bureaucrats at the Central level citing High Court proceedings that do not concern southern states, Wilson submitted. As such, he requested that the ASG obtain instructions on this issue. The ASG, in response, undertook to get back on this issue by tomorrow.
In response to questions posed by the Court on whether the Centre has indicated how it allocates oxygen, the ASG submitted that the allocation is being done based on the situation in each state. There is no question of discrimination, he asserted.
The Court has asked the Centre to clarify on reports that foreign aid to combat the COVID-19 pandemic being stuck at airports.
"...a lot of aid has come in from Germany, Europe...even small countries like Romania but they appear to be stuck in airports... there must be some clarity. It's only for saving lives...Such aid includes oxygenators which help in generating oxygen. If you could just please find out about that," the Chief Justice asked the ASG.
The Court has flagged four crucial areas related to the COVID-19 pandemic:
(a) Oxygen, ventilators, beds;
(b) Remdesivir supply and reports of black marketting;
(c) COVID-19 vaccination: The Court has asked for the State's inoculation programme, adding that it should also ensure equality in how the vaccines are administered;
(d) Continuation of adherence to COVID-19 protocol: The Chief Justice reiterated that the endeavour of the Court is only to monitor the situation, given that human life is of the greatest importance, rather than dictate what to do. He was also prompted to observe,
"What happens in all these calamities, you and I...always have the resources to get away with it. It is only at the bottom (that the impact is felt)."
The Court has urged that there should be no victory rallies or celebrations in violation of COVID-19 norms on the occasion of the new State government being sworn in tomorrow. These things can wait, the Chief Justice remarked. He added that the concern is that those participating in such celebrations may be asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers who could put others in risk as well.
The Court also expressed concern that there was widespread bursting of crackers after the recent declaration of election results, despite earlier orders not to do so. Senior Advocate Wilson assured the Court that such activities were completely stopped and that a press release was also issued against such celebrations by the party's leader.
A prayer made for halting the sale of cigarettes in Puducherry at least for a period of two weeks in view of the COVID-19 pandemic was not entertained by the Bench today, with the Chief Justice remarking,
"Please don't waste time by pushing your agenda...there is no scientific basis for what you are saying...Let us not go by this puritanical attitude."
While Advocate Sreedhar buttressed his plea by pointing out that COVID-19 affects the lungs, the Court remained unconvinced.
"You are pushing your agenda using the calamity as an excuse!" the Chief Justice added.
The Court today requested PIL petitioners present to forward their pleas to the ASG's office, adding that the Court would consider the same if there are any good suggestions made.
Among the prayers made today by various petitioners was a suggestion for a complete lockdown in Tamil Nadu, the use of Siddha as an immunity booster and a plea to prevent family and attendants from visiting COVID-19 patients in hospitals.
The petitions prompted Chief Justice Banerjee to reiterate that the Court is not an expert in these matters and that it can only suggest measures, which the government may act upon based on expert advice.