The Supreme Court on 22nd April, on its own, took cognizance of the grave COVID-19 situation in the country and asked the Union government to furnish within 24 hours a national plan to “bolster supply of oxygen, medicines, treatment, and vaccines”. It is a “national health emergency situation” in the words of the Bench headed by the CJI. The Centre was asked to respond particularly to three issues – setting up a national body for equitable distribution of these resources, declaring important medicines and medical equipment and oxygen as essential commodities under ESMA, and logistics for seamless inter-State distribution of medicines and oxygen.
All these issues are concerned with sharing of required materials in the country among various States and UTs to control the epidemic. Distribution within the States, between districts, among hospitals and COVID centres, and among patients come next whenever and wherever there is scarcity of required goods. The problems that arise, various stand taken and attitudes shown by concerned agencies and clients, and comments made and actions taken in this crisis betray the strength and weakness of the nation’s ability and willingness to rise as one to fight a national health disaster. COVID-19 affects the entire nation, but in different degrees in different places. It is regrettable that the country has displayed its lowest level of unity and solidarity and meanness that surpasses imagination and needs judicial intervention.
True, people are not incapable of acting together and have acted as one on several occasions, but we are cursed with dirty party politics, and parochial attachments like language, State, district, locality, community, etc., overtaking national feeling and sense of sharing.
The court asked whether the Centre had any coordinating body to consider distribution issues in a consultative manner with States and UTs. The second wave of the pandemic is spreading very fast and does not give time for deliberations. But that need not prevent States from coming forward to act as one unit.
Six High Courts also dealt with similar cases and had passed orders concerning distribution of oxygen and drugs. The SC directed Union and State/UT governments and other parties that had approached courts to show cause why uniform orders be not passed by the SC regarding supply of oxygen and drugs, vaccination programme, lockdown, etc.
Obviously, panic has gripped the entire nation knocking at the doors of courts to seek judicial remedy for the lack of unity between authorities engaged in fighting Coronavirus. This is another addition to the burden of High Courts and Supreme Court to ease the tension building up between governments, political parties, and leaders. Federal set up, local bodies, decentralisation, and delegation meant for better administration and meaningful participation are being misused to promote narrowness in outlook. Contempt and not friendship forms the basis of relationships!
Delhi’s oxygen crisis has rocked the entire nation and several hospitals have approached the Delhi court. Complaints are made of blockage of oxygen tanks in Haryana, and failure of Delhi Government to make arrangement for tanks for supplies from other States. Delhi High Court’s observation that the efforts Delhi Government has to make cannot be trivialised, and they should not leave it entirely to the Central Government to act in this regard was needed to awaken States/UTs to realise their responsibility and act.
Union government asked the States on 23rd April to comply with Delhi High Court’s order on transport of oxygen and warned them that non-compliance would be treated as contempt of court and would be proceeded against under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and the IPC. Home Ministry has also asked for details of oxygen plants in various States and to take action to reopen closed plants. Supply of oxygen for industrial purposes has been prohibited.
As oxygen shortage caused death of 24 patients in Delhi, even courts lose their patience. Delhi High Court said that it would hang anyone who tried to obstruct oxygen supply to the city that could prove fatal for patients in hospitals. “We are not going to spare anyone whether it is a senior officer or junior officer from Centre, State, or local authority”, said the court on the ground that disruption of oxygen supply is a “criminal offence”. Short supply and sudden increase in demand cannot be a proper excuse for a State/UT to put the blame entirely on the Centre.
Centre-State collaboration to find solutions is vital in the matter which is what is lacking in this hour of crisis. Hopeless fall of national sentiments and human feelings! Power struggle dominates over everything.
The SC has also agreed to hear the plea on reopening the Sterlite Copper Plant in Tamil Nadu which was closed in 2018 due to pollution problem to produce thousand tonnes of oxygen and supply it free of cost to COVID patients. The objection of the Government of Tamil Nadu was sternly set aside by the SC highlighting the health crisis in the country and rejecting the attempts “to put spokes in the solution”. Some political parties and NGOs also opposed the reopening of the plant despite urgent need for oxygen for saving lives.
The CJI seemed extremely angry at the stand assumed by the State that there was no need to produce oxygen in the State. “You can’t say you are in surplus, so you need not produce oxygen. The country is in bad need of oxygen. It should not be that every State produces and uses up its own oxygen…Oxygen must be produced from a place capable of producing it…The Constitution demands that material resources should be equally distributed all over the country”, the court had to remind the States which sounds like an elementary lesson on cooperative federalism not learnt by power holders/seekers. Tamil Nadu has now agreed to open the plant for four months.
It is a clear case of lack of will to tackle the national crisis and find a solution ensuring compliance with environmental concerns and refusal and/or incapacity to see beyond one’s nose. Within couple of days, Tamil Nadu has urged PM to cancel the order to send 80 tonnes of oxygen to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in view of rising cases in TN which will increase demand for oxygen.
That no State is self-sufficient is sadly ignored. In the same way, no nation is self-sufficient, but rarely realised. Germany, France, Italy, and five more EU countries which agreed to coordinate vaccination campaigns and share data and fight online misinformation are somewhat different.
When sentiments are so narrow in the country, there is little justification to nurse grievance against US administration’s Vax Policy “Americans First”, and stockpiling of vaccines for future use and ban on export of raw materials to produce vaccines to other countries. It has taken many days for US to modify its policy under the pressure of global crisis.
The pandemic has laid bare the true colours of many actors in various places. It is not just a health crisis. It is an aptitude test for quality of Indian politics and national spirit. Best and worst faces of crisis behaviour are exposed. —INFA