Coronavirus and the Constitution – XVII: The Supreme Court’s Free Testing Order – Some Concluding Remarks

I am grateful for all the engagement with my initial post on the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s order mandating free testing for Covid-19. Some of these have been published as responses and rejoinder in this series (unfortunately, for reasons of space, I could not publish all). In this concluding post, I want to briefly address and clarify some of the core issues that have emerged – both on the blog and in the public domain – over the course of the discussion.

Let me start by reiterating that the Supreme Court’s order should have stated that private labs would be reimbursed by the State for free Covid-19 testing, and that a mechanism for this ought to have been worked out before the interim order was passed. That is a significant lacuna in the order. In what follows, I base my arguments on the premise that the State is indeed paying for free testing.

The Policy/Budget Argument 

The argument that has been most frequently made is that the Court’s order is an impermissible intervention into the policy sphere – and a violation of the separation of powers – because it effectively directs the government on how and where to spend its (finite?) resources. To this, there is a straightforward answer: the effective enforcement of almost any right depends upon creating infrastructure, which costs money. For instance, the right to vote requires polling booths and voting machines. The right to free association and assembly presumes the existence of policing. And so on. Consequently, the budgetary argument gets things back to front: the question is not whether a Court order interferes with the budget and is therefore illegitimate, but whether the Court order does or does not enforce a constitutional right. If it does, then the impact on the budget is a collateral issue. The whole point about enforceable rights is that – to go back to Ronald Dworkin – they act as “trumps” against policy goals. In the present case, therefore, the key issues are twofold: what rights are at play (I have argued that these are the rights to equality read with the right to health), and whether lack of access to testing constitutes an infringement of these rights (I have argued that the nature of the coronavirus pandemic is such that it does).

The Parade of Horribles Argument

It is then argued that there is no principled justification for restricting the scope of the Court’s order to free Covid-19 testing alone, and that the logic of the argument essentially requires free and universal access to healthcare. Now, to start with, I do not think that framing universal access to basic healthcare as a constitutional right is necessarily far-fetched: in countries all over the world, State responses to coronavirus have revealed that a lot of what seemed beyond the realm of possibility, practicality, or feasibility, was actually nothing more than a constraint of political ideology (Spain’s experiments with a universal basic income being a classic example). Consequently, while the modalities of effectuating a universal right to free basic healthcare requires the kinds of policy decisions that elected representatives make (a point that I shall come to later in this piece), the fact that free Covid-19 testing belongs to the same family of arguments that view healthcare as a constitutionally guaranteed right is not a disqualification.

However, that said, the argument for free Covid-19 tests does not automatically translate into a constitutional right to an NHS-style healthcare system, even as a necessary logical consequence. This is why, in the initial post, the point was made that what is at stake in this case is the right to health read with the right to equality. I specifically say this because of the nature of the pandemic, which – when combined with the national lock-down – means that the wealth-based barriers to testing affect not just the sufferer, but clusters of low-income neighbourhoods. The issue of testing, therefore, is directly related to structural or systemic discrimination (based on socio-economic class); it is not simply about an individual right to healthcare that is defeated because of financial barriers.

The Path Independence Argument

In his post, Goutham Shivshankar argued that we could accept that there exists a basic right to health, but that at the same time, there are different ways to achieve that (free testing being only one of them). According to this argument, while the right exists, the pathway towards it is a question of policy, which is up to the government to decide.

This tracks a familiar objection against the enforcement of socio-economic rights, and there are two responses to this. The first is that the Court’s order was an interim order, and was made in the presence of government counsel. If the government had an alternative pathway towards enforcement of the right to health, that could have been put forward during the hearing (indeed, socio-economic rights cases are normally dialogic in character, for exactly this reason).

However, there is a more important point here, which is that even in socio-economic rights cases, there is a “minimum core” – or a threshold – that is non-negotiable. For the reasons discussed in my initial post (summarised above) – as well as in Karan’s post – it is my view that in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, testing is that minimum threshold, without which the right becomes illusory. Shivshankar takes the example of an alternative method – that the government provides testing kits and then allows Rs. 500 to be charged for the tests. I disagree strongly with the argument that because poor people spend Rs. 500 on quacks anyway, they should have no problem spending Rs. 500 on a test; however, that apart, if we slightly tweak the example, this is actually an excellent demonstration of how the Supreme Court’s order does actually allow for path-independence, subject to a threshold: because the government could choose to provide the testing kits and then reimburse private labs Rs. 500 per test – or it could reimburse them the full cost. What the Order says is that there should be no price barrier for accessing testing, as that is the threshold of enforceability; how that is accomplished is left to the government.

The Unintended Consequences Argument

It has then been argued that the Order is effectively unimplementable, and will lead to unintended consequences: for example, the government might stop buying PPE equipment, or testing kits, or dramatically reduce testing to make up for the budget shortfall; to address that, then, the Court will be sucked deeper and deeper into a policy vortex, and end up “supervising the pandemic.”

However, State action to subvert Court judgments is neither new, nor confined to the domain of socio-economic rights; recall classic examples where, following Court judgments to desegregate a swimming pool, city municipalities chose to close the swimming pool altogether rather than allow white and black people to swim together. The objection here is of a similar kind, and the answer is of a similar character: there exist enough tools under existing judicial review mechanisms for a Court to be able to gauge when a change in government policy is directly designed to circumvent its orders – indeed, just the basic requirement of asking the government to justify the change in policy will often reveal that there was no good reason for it other than circumvention (in this case, for example, consider the vast amount of money that has already gone into the PM-CARES fund); limited judicial enforcement to prevent that does not damage the separation of powers.


Readers of this blog will be aware that I am no fan of the Court’s past record when it comes to supervising government policy under cover of an expansive interpretation of Article 21. However, for the reasons advanced above, I am not convinced that an Order designed to mitigate the discriminatory impact of a price-barriers to testing in the context of a nationwide lockdown, which itself was designed to tackle a global pandemic, is an overreach. There are a number of factors about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the State’s responses to it, which – in my view – justify this Order.

It is clear, however, that we have not heard the last of this. The mechanism for reimbursement remains to be worked out, and various applicants have moved the Court asking – inter alia – that free testing be restricted to low-income groups. I will conclude by voicing my skepticism about this intuitively plausible solution: the whole point of a right is that it is universal in character. The point is defeated if you start means-testing in order to identify who deserves or does not deserve to access the right. If, therefore, the prior arguments in this essay are sound, free testing should be universal, and not selective (to the equally universal question of how do we pay for it – the State’s powers of progressive taxation exist for exactly that).


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