Coronavirus and the Constitution – XXXIV: The Bombay High Court [Guest Post]

[This is a guest post by Adv. Manoj Harit.]


In the life of a noisy democracy like India, issues fanning large-scale outrage are commonplace. Easy and widespread access to social media accentuates the outrage. Frenetic, sarcastic, or fervent calls to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India follow as matter of course. As a consequence, public-spirited persons rush to the highest Court, invoking Article 32 of the Constitution.

But while Article 32 grants the right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of rights conferred by Part III of the Constitution, Article 226 goes a step further, insofar as it empowers the High Courts to issue writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo-warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose. [Emphasis mine]

Thus, it is manifest that the power conferred by virtue of Article 226 is to enforce the rule of law and to ensure that the State and other statutory authorities act in accordance with law. The words ‘for any other purpose’ are for a specific reason. It is an attempt by the framers to anticipate unforeseen obstacles, if any, that may hinder or curtail the power of High Courts to do justice, review executive actions / decisions, and safeguard the primacy of Rule of Law.

The raison d’être of Article 226 has been particularly evident during the pandemic, at High Courts across the country. Article 226 and judicious exercise of the power conferred by it upon the High Courts has played a vital role in alleviating the sufferings of the citizens, especially the poor and marginalized. The High Court of Bombay has been an important actor, and has handed down a series of orders that are both legally well-founded, and within the spirit of the Constitution.

During the pandemic and the unending lockdowns, the High Court of Bombay was petitioned to intervene when adivasis were denied food rations, when non-Covid patients were facing neglect and apathy, against onerous conditions that were put upon the migrant workers for return travel to their home States, when there was denial of rations to people who did not hold ration cards, against unlawful and wavering directives of the Municipal Corporation with respect to burials of cadavers of suspected / confirmed Covid-19 infected individuals, against non-implementation of RBI guidelines on interest / repayment moratoriums by the Banks, against Air India not keeping the middle seat vacant and thereby risking lives of flyers, on multiple issues on spread of Covid-19 amongst the various correctional homes (admirably, the CJ Bench did not use the words jails or prisons), against imposition of Orders u/s 144 of CrPC by the police authorities, on welfare measures for pet animals, on Covid-19 testing protocols for frontline health workers, on non-availability of crop loans to the farmers & germination problems in soya bean seeds – to mention a few examples.

More than 150 orders have been passed by the High Court of Bombay, exercising powers under Article 226 of the Constitution during the pandemic. A closer look at the orders reveal the working of a Constitutional Court, compassionate and public spirited advocacy, and importantly, a fair and reasoned response from the Attorney-General, representing the State of Maharashtra. The Ld. Attorney General and Senior Advocates representing the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai did not treat the petitions as ‘adversarial’ litigations, and proffered due deference to the suggestions made by the Petitioners (probably due to the disposition of the Bench). Some examples follow:

Ration and Food Supplies

In PIL-LD-VC-14 of 2020, when apprised of lack of ration and food supplies to tribal & adivasi people residing in Thane, Palghar & Nashik Districts of Maharashtra – where the people in remote areas were denied benefits under the Antyodaya scheme for not possessing ration cards, and, the applications for getting ration cards were not being processed due to lockdown – the High Court issued directions to District Supply Officers of Thane & Palghar Districts (both the Districts have a significant population of the Adivasis & the marginalized) to commence work on processing the ration card applications immediately, and further, directed the State to ensure that lack of ration cards did not deprive the citizens of food rations. The petition was kept pending with further directions to the State to submit, on Affidavit, the progress made, thereby keeping the State on its toes. It is the power of High Court under Article 226 that keeps a leash on the executive. And by keeping the petitions pending, the Executive is compelled to take appropriate actions in order to face the Court on the scheduled date. This acts as a catalyst in resolving the issues faced by the citizens. The files move with seemingly miraculous speed in the bureaucracy when the Court date is dangling like the “Sword of Damocles”.

Migrants

In PIL-CJ-LD-VC-11-2020, an important issue was raised: that “the migrant workers who have submitted applications for leaving the State availing Shramik Special trains and buses during the continuance of the Lockdown, have been left in the dark about the status of their applications and that till such time they can board the trains/buses to leave for their native places, they have been made to live in cramped and unhygienic shelters, without being provided with food and other essentials.”

The Additional Solicitor General representing the Union of India informed the Hon’ble Court that the Apex Court was seized of the matter and had already passed an order dated May 28, 2020 on the issue of migrant laborers. The High Court of Bombay, with due deference to the fact that the issue was actually being dealt by the Apex Court recorded that “at this stage, neither are we empowered nor do we wish to make any order contrary to the spirit of the order of the Supreme Court.” But the power of Article 226 and the spirit of Constitution compelled the High Court to further direct the State Government:

… however, having regard to the peculiar local conditions, we consider it fit and proper to call upon the State to file a report indicating therein how the plight of the migrant workers, who have been assembling at the railway stations/bus stands in Mumbai and places around it, are being addressed. In fact, we have come across photographs in newspapers showing congregation of migrant workers not only on railway platforms but also on the streets adjoining the railway stations. Such congregation, if allowed, would run counter to the object, for which the Lockdown has been imposed. The report shall, inter alia, indicate the whole procedure that a migrant worker is required to follow in order to be eligible for leaving this State, the likely time within which he could board a train/bus, the nature of shelter he is provided with during the waiting period as well as provisions made available to him for his sustenance.

Burials

The issue of the burials of cadaver of Covid-19 infected individuals brought out the pragmatic approach of the High Court. [LD-VC-46 OF 2020] In a multi-pronged and multifaceted litigation, the High Court was called upon to review executive action/s, balance the fundamental right to life of people with radically differing contentions; and, also with the right to dignity in death.

The facts:

The Municipal Commissioner, Mumbai had come out with a Circular dated March 30, 2020 under Regulation 10 of the Maharashtra COVID-19 Regulations 2020, issued under Sections 2, 3 & 4 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. It mandated cremation of the cadaver, irrespective of religion. For those wanting a burial, an option of taking the cadaver out of the city limits of Mumbai was provided. It created instant furor & outrage. By evening, an amended Circular was issued, permitting burials in Mumbai, provided that the ‘burial grounds are large enough so as not to create possibility of spread of virus in the neighbouring area’. Both the Circulars were challenged by rival petitioners – those opposing burial permission in city burial grounds and those supporting it.

On April 9, 2020 another Circular was issued in continuation of the aforesaid Circulars. Through this Circular, names and mobile numbers of the persons to contact in case of requirement of burial of a cadaver of a Muslim, and also, the list of the burial grounds were provided.

The aforesaid Circular dated April 9, 2020 was also challenged by some Petitioners claiming that the list of kabrasthans appended to the circular dated April 9, 2020 included 3 (three) kabrasthans, which are close to the Petitioners’ residences. It was contended that burial of the cadaver of a COVID-19 infected individual in a kabrasthan in the vicinity of their residences is likely to endanger their lives as well as others residing nearby and accordingly, they prayed that the Respondents (State of Maharashtra and the Corporation) might be restrained from allowing burial of the cadaver of any COVID-19 infected individual in the relevant burial grounds.

Many intervention applications were also filed. The Court allowed those applications and heard the interveners too.

The Issues Before the Court

Did the Municipal Commissioner, MCGM have an authority to issue the amended circular and its legality and propriety?;

Which of the 3 Circulars issued by the Municipal Commissioner, MCGM conformed with the guidelines issued on the subject by WHO and Government of India, and, hence, sustainable?;

Was the right to life of the Petitioners as guaranteed under Article 21 was adversely affected due to the burial of cadavers of COVID-19 infected persons in the burial grounds surrounded by dense population, including the residences of the Petitioners?;

The Court’s Analysis:

On Issue (a) & (b) : As the Petitioners, Interveners and the State were making differing contentions on the issue, the Court ‘analyzed’ the WHO and Government of India Guidelines on the question of management of cadavers of suspected/confirmed COVID-19 infected individuals. After a detailed analysis, the Court concluded (paragraph 24):

Analysing the said recommendations, it becomes clear that even according to the WHO, there is no evidence of persons having developed infection of COVID-19 from exposure to the cadaver of a suspected/confirmed COVID-19 individual. That apart, the recommendations of the WHO are further clear on the point that people who have died because of COVID-19 infection can either be buried or cremated. Such recommendations also throw light on the procedure to be observed at the time of burial of the deceased. Those who handle the cadaver have to adopt precautionary measures. Those are intended to protect them from being infected. A detailed procedure to be observed at the time of burial is also laid down. Observance of such detailed procedure at the time of burial is, in our view, sufficient safeguard from exposing the near and dear ones of the deceased who would choose to assemble at the kabrasthan/cemetry for having a last look at the deceased and to bid him a final good-bye”.

In paragraph 25: the Court asked itself a question:

“If indeed risk from a dead body would endanger the lives of human beings, the risk involved in treating COVID-19 infected patients by the medical and the para-medical staff, who are the frontline workers to combat the virus, would be much greater. Are such staff shying away from treating COVID-19 patients? The answer must be an emphatic ‘no’.

In paragraph 26, the Court made up its mind based upon the material before it:

… the order of the Municipal Commissioner rather than being founded on scientific data or material appears to have been dictated by considerations which are extraneous. The order refers to a community leader and to what was brought by him to the notice of the incumbent Municipal Commissioner. We have no hesitation in our mind that such incumbent, instead of referring to what the community leader had brought to his notice, would have been well advised to proceed for a scientific management of disposal of cadavers of suspected/confirmed COVID-19 infected individuals in accordance with the recommendations of the WHO and the GoI guidelines.

Thereafter, in Paragraph 27 & 28 the Court declared the earlier Circular dated March 30, 2020 directing that burial should not be allowed for containing spread of COVID-19 and that the dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of their religion, to be unsustainable. The Court further held that though the exercise of powers under Regulation 10  of the Maharashtra COVID-19 Regulations 2020 did not appear to be legal, the Municipal Commissioner could have resorted to it, provided such a measure had the sanction of the existing protocols for management of COVID-19, or was such a pivotal measure, otherwise widely acknowledged, which was not included in the GoI guidelines.

In view of the aforesaid, in paragraph 27, the Court observed that “we, thus, hold the action of the Municipal Commissioner in preventing burials to be illegal and unauthorized and hence, the amended circular cannot be operated to the detriment of the members of the community for whom burial of the dead is part of the religion they profess, practice or propagate.” Noticeably, in the very next paragraph, the Court demonstrated that it is alive to the precedence of ‘deference to the executive action in matters of policy’. The Court observed that “the Municipal Commissioner, being a creature of the 1888 Act, is bound by its terms and a decision has since been taken which conforms to such provisions read with the GoI guidelines. It is indeed a matter of policy whether to close down a place for disposal of the dead. Unless any decision shocks the conscience of the judicial review Court, it ought to stay at a distance.”

However, in this case, intervention was justified, because:

The amended circular was drastic in its operation but without any scientific basis for it to rest on and since it did not have statutory sanction, the circular dated April 9, 2020 notifying 20 (twenty) out of several kabrasthans/ cemeteries for burials was a timely move to restore sanity. To err is human but taking lessons from mistakes and rectifying the situation was the call of the moment. Proper management of disposal of dead bodies ought to have been worked out consistent with the recommendations of the WHO and the GoI guidelines as well as the sentiments of the members of the communities for whom burial of a dead member of such community is an integral part of their religious belief and faith. Though such management was initially lacking, but ultimately better sense must have prevailed upon the incumbent Municipal Commissioner who left no stone unturned to remedy the situation.

As regards to the legality of the amended Circular dated April 9, 2020, the Court held it to be in continuation of the earlier Circular, and, not a review thereof. Therefore, it did not suffer from any legal infirmity.

On issue ( c ) : the Court rejected the contention of the Petitioners that their right to life under Article 21 was under threat due to the burial of cadavers of COVID-19 infected persons in the Kabristans in the vicinity of their residences, for being misconceived and misdirected and without a scientific base or foundation.

It is thereafter that the Court invoked preambular promise of fraternity by observing that:

“We have found the petitioners to be rather insensitive to others’ feelings. The founding fathers of the Constitution felt that the people of India would strive to secure to all its citizens FRATERNITY, assuring the dignity of an individual. That is the preambular promise. In Parmanand Katara (Pt) vs. Union of India & Ors., reported in (1995) 3 SCC 248, it has been held that right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution is not only available to a living man but also to his body after his death. Right to a decent burial, commensurate with the dignity of the individual, is recognized as a facet of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. There is, thus, no reason as to why an individual who dies during this period of crisis because of suspected/confirmed COVID-19 infection would not be entitled to the facilities he/she would have otherwise been entitled to but for the crisis. Should the extant guidelines for disposal of the cadaver of an individual infected by COVID-19 be adhered to and the cadaver properly handled and placed in special covers to contain any kind of spread, we find little reason to deprive the dead of the last right, i.e., a decent burial according to his/her religious rites”. [Emphasis mine]

 

It is, even if not framed so, a balancing of the Part III rights of the living, with that of the dead, although, the dead were unidentified, and not before the Court. That for me, is Article 226 in all its importance.

One thought on “Coronavirus and the Constitution – XXXIV: The Bombay High Court [Guest Post]

  1. Our constitution is also very clear about the education for child, but Sir do you think private education is so costly and not affordable by every one, and government education is very traditional that have no ability to develop the brain of child, than what is the best way to improve the literacy rate in India

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