Various high courts across the country made some scathing commentary on government inaction while hearing suo motu cases on the COVID-19 crisis in their respective states.
Most of such commentary dominated the headlines across the media spectrum, creating a public discourse on the suggestions flagged by the courts.
However, most of the published commentary was merely a part of “courtroom exchange”, “figure of speech”, and “oral observations”, and did not find a place in the formal orders of the courts.
No, Election Commission Will Not Be Charged With Murder
On April 26, the Madras High Court made news for coming down heavily on the Election Commission for the spike in COVID19 cases in Tamil Nadu, where voting and campaigning for Assembly elections were recently held.
While rapping the Election Commission for not regulating rampant violations of COVID guidelines during massive political rallies, the court said:
"Your (EC) institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19. Your officers should be booked for murder charges!" - Madras High Court
While the “murder charge” observation made national news, it didn’t appear in the actual order of the court
In its order, the Madras High Court simply directed the Election Commission to submit a plan by April 30 to show how it will manage compliance with COVID guidelines on the counting day, May 02.
No, No One Is Getting Hanged For Obstructing Oxygen Supply
On April 24, while hearing a plea on the COVID crisis in Delhi, the Delhi High Court said that if any official at the central, state or local administration level was obstructing in the picking up or supply of oxygen, it would "hang" that person. It added that anyone who obstructs oxygen supply, "will not be spared".
The observation was made by the bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli while hearing a plea by the Maharaja Agrasen Hospital over the shortage of oxygen.
The court’s verbatim seeking of capital punishment for those obstructing oxygen supply can best be seen as a spur-of-the-moment “figure of speech”. Even though, for some, it would also amount to trivialising an inhumane form of punishment.
However, the actual order of the court was far less strident, simply directing the Delhi government to augment cryogenic tanks to secure a smooth supply of medical oxygen. The court further directed oxygen suppliers to disclose all information on the distribution of oxygen among hospitals to the nodal officer of the Delhi government.
No, Drug Controller of Jharkhand Did Not Face Any Adverse Action
On April 28, the Jharkhand High Court came down heavily on the Drug Controller of Jharkhand. The court was of the opinion that the Drug Controller had “failed to discharge her duties put a check on the black-marketing of life-saving drugs”.
The court called the Drug Controller’s actions “unfortunate” and “serious issue of concern”.
"Prima facie, it appears that the Drug Controller has failed in discharging her duties, even though to put a check on black marketing is one of the statutory duties of the Drug Controller." - Jharkhand High Court
The court went on to say that it “did not appreciate the conduct of the officers of the Drug Controller to evade orders passed by the court under Article 226 of the Constitution”.
However, once again, the court did not take any adverse action against the Drug Controller or any of her officers. Rather, it simply asked the state government to apprise the court of steps taken to maintain the adequate supply of life-saving drugs.
No, UP Govt Faced No Adverse Action For Holding Panchayat Elections
In Uttar Pradesh, 135 people who were on election duty during panchayat polls died of COVID 19. Taking judicial notice of the matter, on April 27, the Allahabad High Court verbally slammed the government.
"It appears that neither the police nor the Election Commission did anything to save the people on election duty from getting infected by the deadly virus" - Allahabad High Court
It was the same high court that had earlier refused to postpone the panchayat elections in UP in light of rising COVID-19 cases, holding that there were “adequate health protocols” in place.
While the court did issue a show-cause notice to the Election Commission, no action was taken either against the state police or directly against the state government. Such absence of any adverse action against the state government becomes hard to explain when the court itself, during the proceedings, stated that:
"It is now an open secret that the government had gone complacent due to weakening of the virus’ impact by the end of 2020 in the state and the government got more involved in other activities, including Panchayat elections. " - Allahabad High Court
Will The Government Ever Face The Wrath?
The gap between the commentary and actual teeth of the high court orders pose a serious question – will the governments and state machinery ever be directed to pay the price for their blatant disregard of duty?
The high courts have time and again noted in their orders that the governments have either failed, ignored, or not adequately complied with the directions laid down in their past orders. However, as the country yearns for an answer, for accountability, we’re yet to see a minister on the dock.
For the tragedy of such scale and negligence so criminal, would mere abominating words suffice as justice?
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