The Bombay High Court's bench at Nagpur on Thursday via video conferencing passed several directions while hearing a batch of PILs and writ petition which deal with concerns of citizens regarding steps being taken by the state government and district authorities to combat the pandemic of Covid-19.
Most significantly, Justice Manish Pitale, while considering an application filed on behalf of the Employees Union of Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC), directed the State and the Union of India to ensure that workers of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) are paid Rs.200 per day instead of Rs.1000/month which is what they are being paid presently or else specific directions for the same will be issued.
ASHA Workers perform special duties including door-to-door survey of houses during the present lockdown, working throughout the day. The applicant-Union brought to the notice of the Court that appropriate remuneration is not being paid to them and basic equipment for protection/security are not provided and further that even refreshments and tea, as also water from time to time, is not being provided to them.
NMC's counsel SM Puranik submitted that apart from Rs. 1000/ per month, an extra Rs.1500 is being paid to these workers and a proposal has already been sent to the Union for payment of Rs.200/day under Project Implementation Plan (PIP) and as soon as funds are released by the Centre, daily allowance will be paid.
Moreover, Puranik told the Court that the Corporation was suffering from financial crisis and it was difficult to make further payment to the ASHA workers without Centre's help.
"It is distressing that those at the forefront of the war against COVID-2019 are meted out with such treatment by the public authorities including the Corporation," Court said.
Rapid Antibody Tests
District authorities apprised the bench about the total number of functional RT-PCR machines made available in Nagpur. AGP Dipak Thakare submitted that presently the reliable test for diagnosis of COVID-2019 is the RT-PCR machine test and that the Rapid Antibody Test can at best be used for surveillance purposes.
Upon query from the Court, Thakare informed the bench that a total of 71,000 rapid antibody test machines have been received by the State for distribution in hotspot areas. However, in a letter dated April 20, the Director of Health Services, Pune had communicated that the Rapid Antibody Testing Kits should not be used till further orders and therefore the process of allotment of the said kits was not undertaken, Thakare said. Thereafter, reference was made to a communication dated April 27 sent by the ICMR to Chief Secretaries of all States, in light of which Rapid Antibody Tests were not being undertaken.
Appearing for one of the petitioners, Advocate Tushar Mandlekar questioned the reference to ICMR's communication and said that a proper reading of the letter addressed by the ICMR, would show that ICMR has only stated that the Rapid Antibody test kits of two Chinese companies ought not to be used and that such kits be returned back to the suppliers. It was submitted that the said letter did not disclose any policy decision of the ICMR to do away with Rapid Antibody Tests.
Thus, Court directed the State to file an affidavit regarding steps now proposed to be undertaken by them for conducting Rapid Antibody Tests with the reliable kits available for the purpose of surveillance.
RT-PCR Tests Of Doctors, Health Workers & Police Personnel
Another fresh plea was filed seeking directions to conduct RT-PCR tests of doctors, and all health workers as well as Police personnel attending COVID-2019 facilities and a direction to the ICMR to immediately frame appropriate guidelines for conducting such tests.
"This Court finds that lockdown was imposed at a nationwide level so as to break the cycle of spread of COVID-2019 and to ensure that community spread would not take place.It appears that the Union of India as well as the State of Maharashtra need to now seriously consider the issue of undertaking RT-PCR tests of citizens, residents, doctors, health workers and Police personnel at the forefront of the war against COVID2019 and further to consider undertaking Rapid Antibody Tests as a matter of surveillance on citizens and residents of hot-spot areas so that those infected by COVID-2019 are identified and quarantined, thereby helping in the war against Pandemic of COVID-2019. Specific instructions be taken by the learned ASGI and the learned Government Pleader in this regard."
Spurt Of Cases In Amravati
Two fresh PILs were filed alleging inaction by authorities regarding recent spurt of cases at Amravati. Appearing for the petitioners, Advocate PV Navlani referred to certain newspaper reports, and argued that the administration in the District of Amravati had been lax in implementing the lockdown due to which there had been sudden spurt in the number of COVID-2019 cases in Amravati.
Government Pleader, SY Deopujari submitted that he would take instructions on the concerns raised in the petition. Furthermore, he told the Court that insofar as the absence of testing facilities in Amravati was concerned, it was a fact that samples from Amravati were required to be sent to Akola for testing and that in this manner the testing of samples was being undertaken.
Court asked Deopujari to take instructions regarding other contentions raised and report back on the returnable date.
Another petitioner sought to place on record steps taken by the State of Kerala to combat the virus. Petitioner's counsel Ram Heda submitted that the number of new cases of COVID-2019 in Kerala stood reduced rapidly. Even though, at one point in time the number of cases in Kerala were nearly the same or even more than those in the State of Maharashtra and yet today there is a vast difference between the number of positive COVID-2019 cases in Maharashtra and those in the State of Kerala. GP Deopujari was directed to make a statement in this regard on the next date of hearing.
Finally, Justice Pitale observed-
"The present public interest litigation, petitions and applications pertain to the concern expressed by the petitioners and the applicants regarding the steps being taken to deal with the COVID-2019 Pandemic. This is not an adversarial litigation and hence, submissions made by the rival parties were heard in that spirit by this Court.
There is no doubt that in such a crisis, which is faced by humanity once in few centuries, the Authorities responsible for governance are required to take extreme measures. In such a situation, it is all the more important for the Authorities to take into consideration suggestions given by citizens, voluntary organizations and authorities for improving the strategy of dealing with such a crisis.
Authorities are best placed to devise such strategies but positive inputs ought to be taken into consideration with the object of dealing with such a crisis and to ensure that in the circumstances, as far as possible, minimum inconvenience and maximum relief is made available to the citizens at large."
The next date of hearing is May 5.
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