The Bombay High Court last Friday while dismissing a PIL alleging that unhindered movement of doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, policemen and others working in essential services has led to the rise in the number of positive cases of Coronavirus in different parts of suburbs around Mumbai, held that even if some essential service staffers got infected with the virus, it is no ground to ostracise them.
Division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice AA Sayed was hearing a PIL filed by Charan Ravindra Bhatt, resident of Vasai who sought directions for arrangement of accommodation for all essential service staffers in Mumbai itself in order to "prevent the spread of Covid-19" in other parts.
Appearing on behalf of the petitioner, Advocate Uday Warunjikar submitted that the concern expressed by the petitioner is genuine and that the PIL has been presented to safeguard the interest of the inhabitants of Vasai Virar municipal area. According to him, the essential staffers form a potent threat to other inhabitants of Vasai Virar municipal area and that to protect them from being infected, it is the obligation, and duty, of the respondents to make arrangements for accommodating such essential staffers to be accommodated in Mumbai itself.
Warunjikar also referred to certain 'Press Notes' issued by the Municipal Commissioner, Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation, to contend that the claims set up in the PIL are not unsubstantiated.
Previously, the State government had told the Court that the petitioner's suggestion to arrange for accommodation of all essential service staffers within Mumbai was not practicable and therefore, did not merit consideration. In an affidavit filed through Deputy Secretary (Relief), Disaster Management, Relief & Rehabilitation, Revenue & Forest Department, State had submitted that the need of the hour is to fight the disease not the personnel involved in fighting the disease.
Advocate General AA Kumbhakoni contended that the PIL reveals insensitivity on the part of the petitioner.
When frontline workers, engaged in combating Covid-19, as well as administrative personnel have been doing their best to keep fellow citizens free and clear of the infection spread by the pandemic, the petitioner has approached this Court seeking relief to keep the essential staffers in isolation and to ensure that they do not have the opportunity of returning to their residences after completion of their daily work, which is most unfortunate. The PIL has no element of public interest involved in it and being a move to thwart advancement of health and medi-care facilities for the distressed, it should be dismissed in limine, AG Kumbhakoni submitted.
After perusing through the affidavit-in-reply, the Court had pointed out to Advocate Warunjikar that the relief claimed may not be granted.
Realizing that the PIL Petition might fail, Dr.Warunjikar advanced a plea, neither traceable in the pleadings nor in the prayer clauses. He urged that at least a direction be issued to the Respondents to make arrangements for screening/testing of the essential staffers at the entry/exit point at the border while they return to Mumbai at the end of the day, Court said.
Senior Advocate AY Sakhare appeared on behalf of MCGM and cited an order dated June 4, 2020 issued by the Chief Secretary, Government of Maharashtra wherein the order dated May 31, 2020 relating to "Easing of Restrictions and Phase-wise Opening of Lockdown (Mission Begin Again)" was amended and movement of persons within Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) was allowed without any restrictions.
After hearing all submissions, the bench noted-
"We have no hesitation in our mind to opine that a sense of fear drove the Petitioners to institute these proceedings. No doubt, the infection caused by COVID-19 is a communicable disease and also therapeutic cure is not yet available; however, the Court in exercise of its jurisdiction conferred by Article 226 of the Constitution must intervene only if such interference would be in furtherance of public interest."
Court further highlighted the important work done by essential service staffers -
"In the circumstances, such as the present, narrow personal interest must yield to the greater public interest that is involved. The essential staffers, having an onerous responsibility of discharging most important public duties, are perceived by the Petitioners as carriers of infection who could easily spread it among others. The Petitioners' fears of exposure to COVID-19 have been allayed by the Respondents while stating that, to the extent possible, the essential staffers have been made to follow and adhere to the precautionary measures indicated in the several Government orders on the subject. We are also inclined to the view that even if some of such staffers might have unfortunately been infected by COVID-19, that is no ground to sort of ostracize them. The authorities have been actively engaged in formulating policies to tackle the pandemic and these essential staffers have been tirelessly working to implement the measures for the overall benefit of mankind."
Calling for a more humane approach, Court dismissed the petition-
"It is a humane approach, which is the call of the moment. The essential staffers, instead of being put to any disability because of their nature of work and also instead of being forced to reside in places away from their residences, should be encouraged to discharge their duty without fear of duress and restraint. After all, these staffers have their own families and to ensure that none of their family members is infected, it is expected that they would themselves take the greatest care and act with caution so that they are free of the infection and do not transmit the same to their near and dear ones."
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