The coronavirus outbreak that has led to the 21-day lockdown imposed across India has effectively led to the suspension of fundamental rights of citizens and the same can be done only through the imposition of emergency as per the Constitution and not an order under the Disaster Management Act (Act) as was done by the central government, a petition filed before the Supreme Court of India on Thursday argued.
The petition filed by Centre for Systemic Accountability and Change claimed that the divergence in steps taken by various state governments have led to confusion and lawlessness in the country and stressed on the requirement of a unified command between central and state governments to handle the situation.
The petition, therefore, sought financial emergency under Article 360 of the Constitution must be imposed, a step, the petitioner argued was essential to tackle the threat of COVID-19 and to ensure the recovery of the Indian economy after the lockdown is lifted.
As an interim measure, the petitioner prayed for directions to suspend the collection of utility bills (electricity, water, gas, telephone, internet) and EMIs liable to be paid during the lockdown period. The petitioner also asked for directions to be issued to state police and local authorities to comply with the instructions of the union home ministry so that essential services are not disrupted.
The central government on March 24 invoked the provisions of the Disaster Management Act to impose a three-week lockdown in the country. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the chairpersonship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi exercised its powers under Section 6(2)(i) of the Act and passed an order directing various departments and ministries of the central and state governments to take measures to prevent the spread of Covid 19.
Pursuant to such direction from the NDMA, the National Executive Committee which assists the NDMA to execute its functions, invoked its powers under Section 10(2)(l) to issue detailed guidelines to be implemented by the departments and ministries of central and state governments and union territories.
The petitioner submitted that even after the announcement of lockdown, different states and police authorities were continuing to take their own actions under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, in the guise of orders issued by the central government. This, it was claimed, amounts to a “constitutional fraud”.
It was the petitioner’s case that since the country is going through a pan-India epidemic, it must be addressed jointly by the whole nation without internal geographical restrictions and by employing a unified strategy.
“Divergence of steps, taken by different authorities, is causing confusion and lawlessness (and) in no way can be (a) solution to a problem as grave as COVID-19”, the petition said.
Further, the petitioner also claimed that due to the lockdown, economic activities have come to a standstill.
“Though essential services are ordered to be running, many difficulties are being reported across the country, be it the running of shops or delivery of newspapers…situation is so dire that thousands of daily wage laborers, who are now without a job, are walking for hundreds of kilometres to reach their destinations”, the petition pointed out.
The petitioner also submitted that almost all the fundamental rights such as freedom of movement under Article 19 of the Constitution and right to liberty under Article 21 have been practically suspended during the lockdown. Besides, it was also argued that the public doesn’t have access to newspapers, which is happening for the first time after independence. It also argued that the closure of courts has affected the right to justice.