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The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns announced by the Central Government to contain its spread brought with it a host of novel challenges for the State and its citizens.
As with other Courts, a number of litigants have been vying to have various allied issues addressed through PIL petitions before the Madras High Court as well.
The pleas range from concerns regarding food distribution, observance of safety norms, proposals for new forms of COVID-19 treatment and other forms of relief for vulnerable sections of society amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
Some of the pleas that have come up before the Court, as gauged from a survey of available orders passed between April 20 to April 30, include the following.
Incidents of mob violence by local residents opposing the burial of doctors who died of COVID-19 prompted at least two petitions urging that the Court direct for special protection to ensure that doctors who die of COVID-19 are given a decent burial.
In AP Suryaprakasam v. The Commissioner of Police, the petitioner urged that the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act and other IPC provisions be invoked against those persons obstructing the burial. The Court, however dismissed the plea pointing out that “this Court cannot issue any positive order as the derivation of subjective satisfaction falls within the domain of the Detaining Authority.”
A plea for police protection in S Stalin Raja vs. The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu and ors. was dismissed citing the dismissal of AP Suryaprakasam’s case on the issue.
However, the issue was not neglected given that, on the same day, the Court took up a suo motu PIL asserting that Article 21 of the Constitution also entails the right to have a decent burial.
More recently, a PIL plea was also preferred to allow the burial of Dr Simon Hercules, the obstruction of whose burial prompted the Court to take note of the issue, in the spot originally marked to bury him (Sathiyanarayanan Selvanthan v. The State of Tamil Nadu, Home, Prohibition & Excise Department and ors.)
Owing to mob violence, Dr Hercules had finally been buried elsewhere. The Court, however, dismissed the PIL, while clarifying that it may take up the issue again if the family members of Dr Hercules chose to do so.
Pleas filed to urge the examination of alternative treatments to deal with the COVID-19 disease have mostly been redirected from the Court to relevant Government authorities.
On April 21 the Court dismissed a plea projecting the “Vadhe Sure/Kaba Sura Kudhineer” stated to have been developed by the National Institute of Siddha Study and Research of Siddha Medicine, Tambaram as a possible treatment option.
The Court observed, “it is open to the persons or entities indicated in the (Health Ministry) guidelines, to submit their reports, through online portal as well as the High Power Technical Committee constituted by the State Government.” (K Krishnan v UOI and ors.)
The Court, however, also briefly made note that the petitioner, a practicing lawyer, cannot be said to be an expert in the in the field of Ayush or other related medical fields.
On April 23, another plea was preferred seeking Court directions so that the petitioner may be permitted to appear before the concerned authorities to elaborate on “Herbal Formulation ABIAIS-Virus Killer 180” as preventive and curative/supporting medicine (S.Matheswaran vs. Principal Secretary to Government, Health and Family Welfare Dept).
The Court deferred taking a call on this plea, opting to post it for May 29 after noting that, “Learned counsel for the petitioner, despite our persuasion, is unable to answer the queries posed by us as to the human trial by administering medicine /concoction said to have been developed by the petitioner.”
On April 24, the Court dismissed a plea by PIL veteran Dr. KR “Traffic” to appoint a committee to provide integrated medicines against COVID-19, among other prayers, after observing that the Court lacks the medical expertise to give any positive direction.
On a lighter note, the Bench also remarked, “It appears from the contents of the affidavit that the petitioner is also becoming an expert in the medical field also apart from the Honorary Doctorate, he is holding.” (Traffic Dr. KR Ramasamy v. The Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu)
Over the past month, the High Court has issued notice in several petitions filed over the plight of workers during the COVID-19 lockdown including pleas for the following:
Providing emergency relief funds to contractual workers of TANGEDCO (Tamil Nadu Electricity Board Contract Labour Union v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors.). The plea which also seeks the provision of food items for family members of these workers has been adjourned to May 20.
Release of relief funds from the Tamil Nadu manual workers (Construction workers) welfare scheme to construction workers denied the same by tribunals. The plea, which also seeks that the compensation payable to them be enhanced from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 for their bare sustenance, has been posted for May 20 (All India Construction Works unorganised Workers Welfare Union and anr. v.Government of Tamil Nadu and ors.)
Monetary assistance and provision of essential items for unorganized manual workers belonging to the transport industry in Tamil Nadu. The matter has been posted for May 20 (Arumuga Nainar vs. Government of India and ors.)
Insurance compensation in the event that contractually engaged sanitary inspectors, solid waste management workers, ambulance drivers etc. die of COVID-19 or other viral infections (AP.Surya Prakasam v. Chief Secretary, State of Tamil Nadu). When the matter initially came before a Bench of Justices N Kirubakaran and R Hemalatha, the Court emphasised that these workers should be given masks and sanitisers if they are engaged for work amid the COVID-19 lockdown. When the matter later came up before the Bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and M Nirmal Kumar, the plea was adjourned again to May 27.
Insurance compensation for home guards working during the lockdown, in the event of their death due to COVID-19. The petitioner also made a prayer for providing these workers food allowances until the end of the pandemic in Tamil Nadu. This matter will be taken up next on May 27 (ML Ravi v Chief Secretary, State of Tamil Nadu and ors).
Provision of transport facilities and gunny bags for farmers to procure paddy from Direct Purchase Centre during the State’s curfew, and to provide farmers fair amount for paddy. This matter has been adjourned to May 26 (Mohamed Saifulla v. The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu and ors.).
A plea for extending financial assistance to lawyers and court clerks whose livelihoods have been hit by the COVID-19 lockdown has been adjourned to May 13, for the filing of a status report by the State Bar Council (Dr.A.E.Chelliah v, The Chairman and Members of the Bar Council of Tamizh Nadu and Puducherry and anr).
A plea for monetary assistance to Tamil folk/classical artists, ”who are immensely affected for the next three months” has been adjourned to May 20. (Vazhuvoor Ravi v. State of TN and ors). In the last hearing, the Court was told that over 35 thousand registered folk artists have already been provided with assistance.
A plea to provide rations to those without ration cards, particularly migrant workers, on the basis of Aadhaar or other ID has been posted for May 26 (P Arularasu v. The Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu and ors). The Court has emphasised that it is obligatory on the part State to address the genuine grievances of the said "migrant workers and other persons hailing from other States, who were occupied in certain unorganized sectors, prior to lockdown."
A plea to provide food and shelter to dying destitute and mentally disabled persons stranded on roadsides, and to shift them to Government homes after screening them for COVID-19 has been posted to be taken up next on May 21. (M.Karpagam v. the Chief Secretary to Government Government of Tamil Nadu, and ors)
On April 22, the High Court issued notice in a plea with prayers to aid the differently abled amid the lockdown, presented by a differently-abled lawyer himself from his Tirupur home.
The relief sought included those of the doorstep delivery of food and other essential supplies, waiver of electricity bill, free COVID-19 screening and provision of caregivers, if necessary. Notice has been issued returnable by May 21 (L Muruganantham v State of Tamil Nadu).
In a plea does not confine its relevance to the COVID-19 lockdown alone, the Madras High Court was urged to issue directions to the Government so that they may better aid and assist victims of domestic violence.
The measures proposed included publicising the issue of domestic violence and resources of help through the media, appointment of protection officer, provisions for moving domestic complaints online or through the phone, notifying the list of service providers, shelter homes etc. (Sudha Ramalingam v. Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu and ors).
On April 24, the Additional Advocate General told the that the suggestions made by the petitioner would be addressed at the earliest and sought time to file an additional status report. This matter has been scheduled to be taken up next on May 20.
A plea challenging the GST levied on hand sanitisers (18%) and on masks (5%) amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been posted to be taken up next on May 18 (S.Stalin Raja v. The Secretary to Government of India, Ministry of Finance).
A plea to reveal the identity of COVID-19 affected persons was junked by the Court, noting that social stigma is likely to follow a patient who’s identity is revealed (K Narayanan vs. The Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu).
The Government also undertook to obtain instructions in a plea seeking to ban the “wasteful” advertising of achievements done by local bodies for a year, given the COVID-19 pandemic. (B.Ramkumar Adityan v Chief Secretary, State of Tamil Nadu and ors.).
A plea to notify the period of lockdown from March 24-April 14 as “special holidays” for industrial establishments, including those allowed to function has been scheduled to come up next on May 28 (S.Ravindran v. Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu and anr.)
A plea to ensure 100% COVID-19 testing for persons who were exempted from the lockdown has been posted to be taken up next on May 27 (India Awake for Transparency v. The Secretary, Dept of Health and Fall Welfare, Tamil Nadu and ors.)
When the matter had come up initially before the Bench headed by Justice Kirubakaran, he had also made a public appeal urging those who may have come in contact with COVID-19 positive persons to come forward for testing. Further, he also added that stringent measures ought to be taken against curfew violators.
A plea to convert private colleges and hostels to makeshift hospital and isolation wards for those afflicted by COVID-19 has been adjourned to May 18 (AP Suryaprakasam v. Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu).
A number of the pleas coming before the High Court, including some of the PILs mentioned above, have multiple, wide ranging and broad prayers.
A plea seeking directions to ensure social distancing in banks also made prayers for allowing bank staff to work from home if they have medical ailments/pregnant/on the verge of retirement etc., cash benefits for bank account holders who are women/farmer/aged/pensioner etc. (D.Rajagopal v. UOI and ors).
While this plea has now been posted to be heard on May 29, the Bench also observed in its order passed last month,
“Though the petitioner claims to be the General Secretary of Bank Employees Federation of India, Tamil Nadu, came with an omni bus prayer and though it is styled as a Public Interest Litigation, being an Officer Bearer, representing the Union, is expected to give a practical solution to the problems also.”
Another petition made eight detailed prayers that were largely unconnected to each other, save that they generally to do with the management of the COVID-19 lockdown.
The prayers ranged from engaging student NSS/NCC volunteers to manage queues in essential commodity shops during the COVID-19 lockdown, the grant of Rs 10,000 to merchants forced to close their shops amid the lockdown to prayers for the compulsory wearing of masks and erection of COVID disinfection tunnels in the Koyembedu Wholesale market (Gerugambakkam Sutruvattara Viyabarigal v. UOI and ors).
When the matter came up on April 28, the Court observed that,
“The petitioner Association appears to be highly innovative and as usual, like any other Public Interest Litigants, developed the habit of giving very many advices for addressing the problems faced on account of COVID- 19 lock down.”
Many of the prayers made were done away with, after the Court observed that they were either general in nature, or lie in the realm of government policy. However, the Government has undertaken to file a status report on two aspects highlighted by the petitioner, i.e.
Issue of temporary identity cards to the merchants for their necessary movement to procure the essential commodities from the wholesale markets.
Permitting the interstate and intrastate transport of essential Goods Carrier Service under the supervision of the Government authorities, to ensure the supply chain of essential commodities to the wholesale markets and local markets.
This matter has been posted to be taken up next on May 28.
In another instance, the Court also briefly commented on the role that the Government could play in ensuring litigants are not driven to the Court, addressing possible grievances that may arise in the future expeditiously in accordance with law.
While dismissing a plea against the reopening of registrar offices amid the COVID-19 lockdown, the Bench observed,
"... what has to be done in the present scenario is that the appropriate Departments are also expected to take a call in respect of any representation submitted by the concerned Associations / individuals as to the redressal of the grievances which pertains to the essential services and activities and as and when such representations are preferred, the concerned Department is expected to take a call and give a disposal depending upon the merits of the same and in accordance with law, as expeditiously as possible without driving the concerned litigants to approach this Court in the form of filing of writ petitions of this nature."
As the last month drew to a close, the Bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and M Nirmal Kumar was primarily been dealing with these writ petitions, amid the Court's restricted functioning during the lockdown.
With a roster change, following the Court's intimation that more Benches would be sitting from this month, it remains to be seen whether these pleas would be picked up where it was left off by the next Bench given the portfolio.