Hindustan Times (East UP)
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre to present before it a national plan on Friday elaborating the measures it has adopted and proposes to take to face the national emergency while taking a suo moto (on its own) cognisance of the crisis triggered by the second Covid-19 wave. The surge in infections has led to a shortage of hospital beds and crucial supplies such as medical oxygen and medicines.
A Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde-led bench asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta to remain present in the court with the plan as it said the court will monitor the steps being taken by the Centre to ensure sufficient and equitable supply of medical oxygen and medicines across the country. The bench appointed senior advocate Harish Salve as amicus curiae to assist the court in the matter. It asked him to provide suggestions after examining the Centre’s plan.
The bench, which also includes justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, pointed out that at least six high courts were hearing issues related to the preparedness of the states and the Centre to deal with the crisis.
“They are exercising jurisdiction in the best interest, but it is creating confusion and diversion of resources because of their priorities. One high court thinks there is a priority for one group and some for another. So, we as the Supreme Court, wish to take suo moto cognisance of certain issues,” Bobde told Mehta.
The bench listed out its focus areas – supply of medical oxygen, essential medicines, method and manner of vaccination, and the power of a court to order a lockdown to check the pandemic spread.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed an order of the Allahabad high court for virtually locking down five worst-hit districts of Uttar Pradesh. On the issue of lockdown, Bobde on Thursday observed that this authority should be with the state government. “We want to keep the power to declare lockdown with states. It cannot be a judicial decision. We will, for the moment, issue notice to the Centre on these four issues,” said Bobde while asking for the national plan on Friday, which happens to be his last working day before he retires.
When Mehta asked if the Centre was still required to make submissions before the high courts after the top court’s
cognisance, Bhat said that the government should go ahead and adduce its national plan before high courts. Bhat said the idea was not to supersede high court orders at this moment. Bobde said it was perhaps a better idea for the Supreme Court to hear everything together and the matters before the high courts could be transferred to it.
Mehta said the Centre will for now inform the high courts about the pendency of the matter before the Supreme Court.
Salve, who was present in the court on behalf of Vedanta with a request for reopening its Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi to produce and supply oxygen for Covid-19 patients, said people were dying every day. “We want this permission only for starting the oxygen plant. And we will supply it free of cost. Give us the permission today and we can start producing it in 5-6 days.”
The plant was shut down in May 2018 after 13 civilians were shot dead in the anti-Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi. The Madras high court in August 2020 rejected Vedanta’s petition to reopen the plant, citing environmental concerns. The Supreme Court has also rejected requests to reopen the plant for a trial run.
Salve said Vedanta was pleading only for making the oxygen plant in Thoothukudi functional so that it could provide thousands of tonnes of oxygen for medical purposes.
Mehta cited the dire need for medical oxygen and added the Centre was augmenting its supply from all possible sources. “Let Vedanta operate its plant only for the purpose of producing oxygen and this will be diverted only for medical purposes. Sooner the plant starts functioning, better for the country.”
Senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan, who represented the Tamil Nadu government, said there was a “trust deficit” with Vedanta. He added the violations for which the plant was shut could not be ignored. The state government opposed any urgent hearing of Vedanta’s application.
Bobde questioned the Tamil Nadu government’s attitude. “What is this attitude? You are not manufacturing it [oxygen] and you will be getting it free of cost for your medical emergencies. We will make sure they follow all environmental norms, but we do not appreciate your attitude. This is a national emergency. Do not throw spokes like this,” Bobde told Vaidyanathan, while fixing the hearing into the matter on Friday.
Mehta said between protecting human life and the environment, they must lean toward protecting human lives.
Oxygen is a critical medical intervention against Covid-19, which causes respiratory distress in some cases. The pandemic has accelerated the global demand for it. The need for oxygen has increased to 1.1 million cylinders in low to middle-income countries alone, according to the World Health Organisation.
On Wednesday, the Delhi high court issued an unusually strong strictures on the Modi government and private industries, ordering the Centre to “forthwith” provide oxygen by whatever means to hospitals in Delhi facing shortage of the gas in treating serious Covid-19 patients, observing it “seems human life is not important for the state”.
“You are not exploring all avenues to augment oxygen supply. Beg, borrow or steal,” the high court had told the Centre, and asked why it was not waking up to the gravity of the emergency situation. It also warned that certainly all hell will break loose with the stoppage of medical oxygen to the hospitals.
“We cannot shut our eyes to it,” the high court had said, added that the government cannot say it cannot provide more oxygen and people can be left to die on roads.