Introduction of Public Interest Litigation by then Chief Justice “P.N. Bhagwati's judicial system was for providing access to justice for obtaining legal redress to the needy. Any citizen can file PIL under Art.32 of the Indian Constitution, in the Supreme Court, under Art.226 of Indian Constitution in High Court and under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code, in the Court of Magistrate. Public Interest Litigation cannot be filed against any private party. PIL raises the accountability of government towards the Human Rights of the poor.
Due to the pandemic, the government has suspended movement, offices, businesses, and many more but it cannot suspend the work of the Constitution itself. Whatever be the situation Public Interest should always be taken care of. During the pandemic when the whole world is at holding Higher Courts in India are hearing ‘urgent’ matters; whereas the lower courts are entertaining only ‘remand’ cases. According to officials, at least 1605, 1500, 3000 and 7091 FIRs have been registered in Odisha, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala for the violation of lockdown. During the pandemic, it becomes very difficult for the courts to deal with such pity matters. The role of Courts in safeguarding public interest during lockdown is seen to be very challenging.
Supreme Court as the guardian of Personal Rights
Everyone needs to abide by the constitution may it be the government, courts, or common people. Even the Supreme Court has to work by remaining in the jurisdiction of the constitution. Personal Rights are those rights that are guaranteed to every individual irrespective of race, caste, nationality, language, religion, sex, or color. Personal Rights provides protection of human rights and fundamental freedom from the government. The Supreme Court is the highest authority of the judiciary and hence, its decision is said to be followed by all the lower courts. Every individual under Art.32 of the constitution can approach the Supreme Court if any of their fundamental rights have been violated. Article 32 is characterized as ‘an important and integral part of the basic structure of the Constitution’; therefore the power of protection is given to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has the authority to declare a law null and void if it directly or indirectly violets the common interest of people. The Supreme Court by protecting this basic structure protects the basic Human or Personal rights and therefore, the Supreme Court is recognized as the “Guardian of Personal Rights.”
Recent criticism regarding abdicating this duty
The Supreme Court has laid down a standard operating procedure to hear only the urgent cases via video conferencing during the lockdown. When the several pending cases regarding the plight of migrant laborers or Internet curb in Kashmir and other writ petitions, it raised several eyebrows when the petition of Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami, was heard the next day of which it was filed.
The petition filed by Arnab Goswami was to seek protection against threats which was heard the very next day while on the other hand, it took more than one week for the hearing of the petition filed for the supply of ration to migrant workers who were left stranded with no jobs and very less food due to the lockdown.
The success of democracy lies in the concept of division of power and responsibilities. If the Supreme Court, which according to several experts and journalists appears to be abdicating its power, doesn't perform its function in a transparent and judicious manner, democracy will appear to be failing. In the present context, the judicial axiom "Justice must not only be done, but it must also appear to be done" sounds very relevant.
Latest measures directed by the Supreme Court
The most important measure to be followed in this pandemic is maintaining “social distance”. Therefore, the whole world is trying to find ways to work by following proposed measures by the World Health Organization to prevent transmission of the virus. Earlier Supreme Court and High Courts used to conduct pleadings through video conferencing. The Supreme Court practicing its plenary power under Article 142 of the Constitution said that even the district courts will also be conducting pleadings through video conferencing.
As our nation was not prepared to handle a pandemic situation, the nation faced various problems. There were various rumors regarding the pandemic which has put various lives at risk such as the usage of various other drugs for treating corona. Therefore, the Supreme Court directed the media house to publish and report only the official version to reduce the panic. There are various officials appointed to put a check on the news circulated on various social media platforms.
Supreme Court’s Impact on the public during the lockdown
The Supreme Court is the guardian of the law and its functioning becomes even more important in a crisis. During the lockdown, several unprecedented problems surfaced. All arms of the government took up the responsibility of fighting the pandemic with the powers vested in them. The Supreme Court had a similar story.
The plight of the migrant workers, who had to walk hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach their homes due to the inactive public transport, accounts for the most severe problems in terms of numbers. Taking “suo moto” cognizance of the matter, the Supreme Court, on 9th June 2020, directed several states and center to run additional special trains such that all migrants reach their home in 15 days. It also directed states to map their skills and provide them with job opportunities in their home states.
Earlier in April, in a judgment, the Supreme Court had allowed private laboratories to charge fees for testing of Covid-19. After that, the union government capped the prices of testing COVID-19 in private labs at Rs. 4500. This was a major decision as private labs account for up to 30% of testing infrastructure and it came at a time when the country was having a tough time ramping up the testing capacity. Private labs could not have continued services due to high operational costs, had the Supreme Court not given them relief.
The Supreme Court decision of video conferencing pleading has again ignored the marginalized community of India. Justice cannot be served via modern technology in an economy where the majority population is indebted to poverty. Poor people who do not have the proper equipment or poor internet connection will again be suffering to attain justice. The pleadings in the Supreme Court however have seen a sharp decline. On the working days of the Supreme Court, it is only able to address ten to fifteen cases on a daily basis. However, the Supreme Court managed to protect the rights of the poor and upholding the public interest. The decisions made for migrant workers were the most needed decision for the smooth functioning of the state. Judiciary is the most important component of a democratic nation as the Constitution is considered as the Supreme of all authority and the one who regulates the authorities.
6.Shashank Deo Sudhi v Union of India Writ Petition Diary No.(s)10816/2020
Article by Awantika, a first-year B.A.LL.B student at Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida.