In a notable development, the Patna High Court urged the State Government to reconsider its policy of not engaging with members of civil society in handling the COVID-19 crisis.
A division bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar observed "in a democratic society, the Civil Society cannot be ignored, more so in the times of disaster".
The bench was hearing a PIL filed by Ms. Parul Prasad (AOR) assisted by her research associate Akshat Agrawal (final year, Jindal Global Law School), challenging the refusal of District Magistrates to allow civil society organizations and NGO's to help and supplement relief mechanisms for the needy people.
On May 19, the court while hearing this petition along with another one filed by one Rajiv Ranjan (Advocate) (regarding the status of quarantine centers), directed the state government to reconsider this issue at the highest level.
The bench observed :
"Well, we are of the considered view that perhaps it would be in the public interest, as also that of the State, that the Government revisits its earlier policy of not engaging with the members of the civil society, on an individual or organized basis, in dealing with the issue of at least manning the crowds at the Railway Station/Destination or at the quarantine Centre established by the State at different places in Bihar. May be fully manning the quarantine centers. We see no harm in that, particularly when the Civil Society wants to do it on voluntary basis, without claiming any credit for rendering such service.
We have already expressed our opinion that in a democratic society, the Civil Society cannot be ignored, more so in times of disaster. We may only observe that under Section 35, Chapter V of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 it is mandatory for the Government to constitute the authorities, be it at the National level, the State level or the District level and the participatory role of the NGO's stands accepted and acknowledged by the Legislature in the same statute."
The court further went on to cite the SC precedent in the Swaraj Abhiyan (I) v. Union of India case stating that;
"The Hon'ble Supreme Court in Swaraj Abhiyan Versus the Union of India and others reported in (2016) 7 SCC 498 while dealing with the issue of drought in the State of Bihar had issued certain directions, one of which we reproduce
"97. Keeping all the factors in mind we issue the following directions:
97.8. Humanitarian factors such as migrations from affected areas, suicides, extreme distress, the plight of women, and children are some of the factors that ought to be kept in mind by the State Governments in matters pertaining to drought and the Government of India in updating and revising the Manual. Availability of adequate food grains and water is certainly of utmost importance but they are not the only factors required to be taken note of."
The Court said that the above directions issued by the SC in the context of disaster caused by drought, would apply, with equal force, in fact, more so, in the current attending circumstances of pandemic COVID- 19.
The bench stressed that 1/10th of the population of India lives in Bihar and with almost eight lacs people coming home from different parts of the country, the problem of human management itself, let alone anything else, needs to be addressed immediately for it cannot brook any delay, else it would adversely affect lives of each one residing in Bihar.
"The matter needs to be examined with a sense of urgency and seriousness. We are of the considered view that perhaps, the issue of engagement of civil society, more so when it is so desired by the NITI Ayog, needs to be reconsidered at the highest level", the Court observed.
The Court directed Principal Secretary, Disaster Management Department, Government of Bihar file his personal affidavit on all the issues highlighted before the next date. The matter has been posted to May 22.
In the connected matter filed by Advoacte Rajiv Ranjan, the bench directed the Principal Secretary to indicate the mechanism and procedure evolved right from the point of identification of persons intending to return to Bihar upto the point of their housing at the Centres.
"Undoubtedly the task is horrendous and the issue is of prime importance. If approximately more than four lakhs persons have already entered the State and are housed at these Patna High Court quarantine centres, with an equal number expected to reach Bihar in the immediate future, the Administration must under all circumstances take measures in ensuring not only their safety and security, but also those who are already residing in the State", the bench observed while stressing the need of increasing the number of tests to be conducted.
Last month, the Madras High Court had allowed political parties, NGOs and individuals to participate in COVID-19 relief work with strict riders.
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