[This is a guest post by Aakanksha Saxena.]
This blog has previously dealt with orders of the Gujarat and Karnataka High Court as recent exemplary instances of constitutional courts practising dialogic judicial review during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown crisis. Subsequently, the Bombay High Court was faced with the question of whether, in view of the scarcity of certain components of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) such as surgical masks, N-95 masks, hand sanitisers and gloves, the prices of such components were required to be capped – specifically that of N-95 masks. In the course of proceedings culminating in its 9th June 2020 Order, the High Court continued the welcome trend, by (1) throughout the course of hearings, identifying where the respective governments were lacking in their response to the issues raised, and (2) posing pertinent questions with the aim to elicit a positive approach in respect of the policy expected to be framed, all while refraining from judicial overreach and ensuring executive accountability. The Order and the approach leading up to it are a far cry from the decisions seen at the beginning of the national lockdown, which reflected a degree of judicial deference to the executive that has come under great and justifiable critique.
Background and Scope of the PIL
The PIL had been filed seeking a host of directions, including a ceiling on the prices of certain goods declared as “essential commodities”, stemming from concerns of hoarding and rampant black marketing of PPE (“PIL”). On a reading of the PIL petition, it is clear that the primary reliefs prayed for were against the Maharashtra State Government. During previous hearings of the matter, submissions were in fact made by the Union of India, to the extent that the Centre had already placed a ceiling on the price of certain components of PPE, but as far as the N-95 masks were concerned, the issue of a price ceiling had been raised with the Centre by the State Government, and no response had been received. As a result, the Court by an Order granted the Centre time to take instructions specifically on this question, and file an affidavit containing its reply. Thus, while accepting the policy framed by the Centre in respect of price caps for certain PPE goods, the Court remained attuned to the concerns raised in the PIL qua the N-95 masks, which had not been included by the Centre in its formulation, despite having been declared an essential commodity by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, with the very object of prevention of hoarding, black marketing and profiteering.
Eventually when the matter came up for hearing, the Petitioners apprised the Court of an order dated 11.2.2020 issued by the Central Government, which included medical devices intended for human use within the meaning of drugs under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, which would then mean that goods such as N-95 masks fall within the purview of the Drugs (Price Control) Order, 2013 (“Control Order”). Order 20 of the Control Order places an express duty on the executive to “ensure that no manufacturer increases the maximum retail price of a drug more than 10% of the maximum retail price during preceding 12 months; and where increase is beyond 10% of maximum retail price, it shall reduce the same to the level of 10% of maximum retail price in the next 12 months”. Order 19 of the Control Order vests discretion in the Government to fix thr ceiling price or retail price of any drug for such period, as it may deem fit.
It was established by the Petitioners that the 11.2.2020 Order and consequently the Control Order were not taken into consideration in decisions of the NPPA dated 15.5.2020 and of the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers dated 21.5.2020. Vide its Order dated 15.5.2020, a direction had been passed by the NPPA directing manufacturers /importers /suppliers of the N-95 Masks to maintain parity in prices for non-government procurements and to make available the same at “reasonable” prices, without taking into account that the Control Order itself indicated what price determination was to be followed. It was opined that a price cap was not needed at the time, since the government was directly procuring the said masks from the major manufacturers. “Reasonable prices” therefore, was evidently a vague term deployed by the NPPA, which would have created unwanted discretion in the hands of the manufacturers /importers /suppliers. Where the decision had already been taken placing N-95 masks in the same category as hand sanitisers, gloves, and surgical masks, the distinction in imposing a price ceiling was arbitrary and unjustified.
The Centre sought to support the NPPA decision by way of its affidavit, and further pointed out that the price of masks had since been further reduced by 47%. Given the circumstances, the admitted position on record of reduction in price might have arguably justified judicial deference to executive policy-making, and given a quietus to the matter.
However, the High Court, on a close reading of the affidavit noticed that notwithstanding the reduction in prices, the Government was itself considering imposing a ceiling on the price of PPE. In this background, the High Court correctly directed that instructions be taken on whether the Central Government would revisit and reconsider the question of imposing a cap on the price of N-95 masks. When an affirmative statement was made in this regard, the High Court appropriately finally directed that the Central Government was required to take a fresh decision, by including consideration of the Control Order and the relevant provisions of the EC Act, and other relevant aspects, within a period of 10 days to 2 weeks.
The progress of the price-capping PIL before the High Court is another clear example of how constitutional courts ought to engage in judicial review by setting up an effective dialogue with the executive. Without passing directions in the nature of policy decisions (which were sought by the PIL), the High Court at every stage raised pertinent questions after analysing the stand and submissions on behalf of the government.
The ongoing lockdown has considerably and unpredictably impacted the right of access to justice on the one hand, and given rise to several instances of grave infractions of constitutional, civil, and socio-economic rights. The rapidly changing developments have led to excessive delegated legislation by way of orders and notifications issued by the Central and State Governments, and a simultaneous deluge of PILs being filed, highlighting concerns where policy is not forthcoming. The need of the hour has therefore been that courts engage with the executive, to ensure that policy is adequately framed, and where framed that it is lawfully justified.
The High Court, in its decision, not only completely complied with precedent on price fixation laid down in Pallavi Refractories v. Singareni Collieries Co. Ltd., (2005) 2 SCC 227, but also by the formulation of relief in the Order placed accountability on the government to ensure that a timely decision is taken (failing which the problem would likely exacerbate) and communicated to the petitioners. The objective, viz. of ensuring that PPE components remain available and affordable was emphasised so as to be kept in mind by the government while reviewing its policy, without any overreaching directions being passed.
In the aftermath of the Bombay High Court’s order, a decision by the central and state governments remains to be taken on the issue of the N95 mask price ceiling, pending which no further hearings have taken place in the PIL. The time directed for this decision to be made having lapsed, it remains to be seen whether the High Court will now hold the Centre to a higher degree of accountability, or, in the event of an absence of policy decision making, decide the question itself.