The Bombay High Court on Tuesday enquired as to how many passengers evacuated under the Vande Bharat Mission from different countries actually tested positive for Covid-19 after landing in India and were not positive before taking the flight. Court directed the Centre to submit such data by Wednesday evening and posted the hearing to Thursday.
A division bench of Justice SJ Kathawalla and Justice SP Tavade were hearing a petition filed by Commander Deven Y Kanani of Air India who relied upon circular issued by the Government of India dated March 23, 2020 and alleged that the national carrier violated the said circular by failing to follow the rule of keeping the middle seat empty during evacuation of stranded passengers from USA as part of the Vande Bharat Mission.
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh appeared for the Union of India and sought the Ministry of Civil Aviation to be made a party to the case. However, the bench noted that the same would be decided after hearing an application from the ministry.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta appeared on behalf of the DGCA and Air India and assured the Court that the special flights had complied with all the safety and social distancing norms currently in place for tackling the pandemic of Covid-19.
DGCA has already directed the airlines to keep middle seats vacant and if that is not possible, additional protective equipment like three-layered masks, face shields etc is being provided by Air India to such occupants, Mehta informed the bench.
Affidavit filed on behalf of Air India states that over 70,000 Indians are to be brought back by June 16 and 85,000 Indians in the third phase of evacuation. Over 6.5 lakh Indians stranded abroad due to the outbreak of pandemic of Covid-19, have reached out seeking to be rescued, the affidavit states.
While hearing the present petition on May 22, Bombay High Court had concluded that the DGCA circular directing airlines to keep middle seats empty was applicable to Air India's non-scheduled international flights. Thereafter, Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India moved the Supreme Court against the order of the High Court.
In a special sitting on May 25, the Supreme Court allowed Air India to operate non-scheduled flights with centre seat bookings for 10 days up to June 6.
Following the SC order, DGCA directed airlines to try to keep the middle seats on flights vacant or provide 'wrap-around gowns' to passengers who are allotted such seats.