The Supreme Court disposed of two pleas on Tuesday which sought the evacuation of Indians stranded in the United States of America (US) and Moldova respectively, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
A 3-judge Bench comprising of Justices NV Ramana, SK Kaul and BR Gavai decided to leave it to the discretion of the Government to take a call as to when it would be best suited to bring these people back, and refused to interfere.
Pursuant to a notice on advocate Vibha Datta Makhija's plea to evacuate distressed Indians who are stranded in US while their temporary visas were expiring, the Central government filed a status report apprising the Court of the measures being taken by them to ensure the well-being of the said Indians. The report outlined details of the nodal officers appointed by the Government for each region and highlighted the various measures undertaken by the embassy and consulates to help those stranded, in collaboration with some voluntary organisations that had stepped in.
Referring to the report, Makhija expressed her appreciation for the work being done by the Government but implored the Court to see how worker stranded in US were in dire conditions and yet were being discriminated against (since the Government had managed to evacuate Indians from Wuhan, Italy and Iran earlier).
"We have a list of 110 people in dire need of help. Helplines are there. Government has said they will consider evacuation on a case by case basis. Evacuations have been done. There needs to be fairness. Evacuations have been organised by Indian government to bring back Indian citizens."
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Government, informed the Court the Court that evacuations had been conducted earlier, but they have been stopped internationally at this point. He submitted that the Indian Government would not be able to evacuate them right now, but were in talks to ensure that they are not in distress.
Expressing their inability to order Indians to be brought back at this point, Justice Kaul stated that "they cannot be brought in no matter how much we want. Assistance is being given to them. They are spread across US."
Referring to the argument of discrimination in not evacuating certain citizens, the Court observed "we cannot do anything at this time. Don't pitch it at a level which does not exist." Refusing to interfere, the Court reiterated that these citizens could not be brought back and stated that they had been informed that the US government was extending visas in light of the global outbreak.
Makhija attempted to throw light on how visa extensions would cost USD 500, equivalent to INR 35,000, but the Court enunciated that it could not control the decisions of another Government.
It was concluded that "the court will not tell government to do anything in a particular manner. It's a worldwide problem. Each country is doing their best. These are not matters for the Court's intervention."
Noting that the Government's status report evidenced their "proactive approach" towards the situation, the Bench disposed of the matter. However, liberty was granted to the Petitioner to make representations before nodal officers along with the Ministry of External Affairs within two weeks to enable the government to identify the exact situation of distress faced by the individuals and take appropriate measures.
The order stated :
"on a request made by the Petitioners, the learned Solicitor General submitted that a representation can be made regarding specific vulnerable people to the designated officers mentioned in Annexure-I of the list of officers attached with the Status Report filed by the Ministry of External Affairs, within two weeks.
On such a representation being filed by the Petitioners, the concerned authorities are directed to consider the same on its own merits and take appropriate steps to ameliorate the conditions of those in USA. With the above direction, the writ petition stands disposed of".
Petition for students in Moldova
Apropos another plea filed by social worker Anvar Bapu, seeking airlifting of 400 Indian students from Moldova to Cochin, the Court recorded SG Mehta's submission that it would not be possible to allow the prayer because of the current restrictions imposed by the Government, and refused to give any directions to them.
The petitioner apprised the Court of Indian students being in isolation for a month and a half in Moldova where no cases of COVID-19 existed at present. It was also submitted that Air Moldova was willing to transport them back, but the Indian government was not giving the plane permission to land.
"There is no problem in Kerala. We have medical facilities. This is a limited prayer to allow the plane to land", pleaded the petitioner.
The argument was rejected by the Court citing the Government's decision to impose a complete travel ban.
"The government has said no people will be allowed to come. The same thing has happened in case of students from UK/US. The government has taken a decision to not allow any flights or trains. How can we ask them to allow the plane to land? Government is not allowing international flights…Let them take a decision…As and when it's feasible to bring them back it can be done."
With this, the matter was disposed of. Whenever the Government decides to allow flights, the Court added, "the petitioner is at liberty to make a request to bring the children back to the State of Kerala.
"In this petition preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, the petitioner has prayed for a direction to respondent No.1 to make arrangements for expeditious repatriation of students stranded in Republic of Moldova to Cochin.
Taking into consideration the restrictions imposed by the Government of India, learned Solicitor General submits that it is not possible in the present situation to allow such a prayer.
"In view of the above, we are not inclined to give any direction to the Government of India in this regard.
However, whenever the Government of India takes a call on allowing the flights, the petitioner is at liberty to make a request to bring the children back to the State of Kerala.
Click here to download order (Vibha Dutta Makhija's plea)
Click here to download order (Anvar Bapu's plea)