A division bench of the Gujarat High Court on Friday pulled up the Railway authorities for levying charges for transportation of the migrant workers and directed the Railways to either waive off one way charges of the journey or to recover such amounts from the respective State Governments.
In the suo motocase registered on the issue of migrant workers and spread of COVID-19 in the state of Gujarat, the High Court had sought a detailed report from the Government regarding steps taken to ameliorate the situation.
In its report, the Government assured the court that no migrant worker had been denied travel to his home town on account of non-payment of travel charges. However, it was also informed that transportation charges for migrant workers were being arranged by a few host states, many NGOs and civil society organizations at the district level.
Taking exception to this, the bench of Justices J B Pardiwala and Ilesh J Vora observed,
"The report filed today and taken on record reflects that the travel charges levied for the transportation of the migrant workers, by the Railway authorities is borne by a few host States, NGOs, employers, voluntary associations. This is not done. We direct the Railway authorities to waive of one way charges of these migrant labourers or in the alternative, for the State Government to bear such charges."
The Court further added :
"We may only observe that the work relating to the migrant workers should continue with all its vigour. The State Government shall ensure that the migrant workers do not have to face further difficulties for the purpose of travelling to their native. The work in this regard shall continue in the right direction".
The state Government took the stand that since several migrants had come to the state on their own, provisions of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen(Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 that covered displacement allowance and journey charges did not apply to them.
"The provisions of the Interstate Migrant Workers Act 1979 are applicable to the registered migrant workers under the said Act. There are 7,512 workers registered under the Act. Based on the available data, there are around 22.5 lakh migrant workers across the state. Most of them have come on their own and provisions for payment of travelling allowance and displacement allowance as required by Sections 14 and 15 of the Interstate Migrant Workers Act, 1979 is not applicable to them," the government had said in the statement filed in the Court.
The Government also told the Court that the States of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu had agreed to deposit travel costs with the Railways.
Recently, the Karnataka High Court had pulled up the Karnataka Government for taking the stand that it cannot bear the travel cost of the migrants from other states. Following the rap from the HC, the Yediyurappa government decided to bear the rail fare of migrants.
Availability of Adequate Medical Facilities At Hospitals/ Quarantine Centers
The bench also took note of the "distressing and painful" conditions prevailing in the Civil Hospital at Ahmedabad, which reported highest number of Corona deaths during the last eight weeks.
"It is very distressing to note that most of the patients in the Civil Hospital are dying after four days or more of the treatment. This indicates complete lack of critical care," the bench remarked.
The Court has thus asked if the Gujarat Government was aware that the lack of adequate number of ventilators was the cause of high mortality of patients there.
Inter alia, the bench issued the following directions to curb the menace of the pandemic:
- One ambulance with all facilities should be parked/ stationed permanently at the Hotel- quarantine centre so that if there is an emergency in the quarantine centre, the patient can immediately be rushed to the nearest hospital.
- The expression of interest can be called from such local physicians area wise in the state, and accordingly, a list be prepared. Such physicians can serve in the wards and hospitals and also at the quarantine centres which are overcrowded and falling within the containment zones.
- As per the press reports, in the State of Maharashtra, all general physicians have been asked to run their own clinics or serve in the Government COVID hospitals. The same policy should be adopted in the State of Gujarat.
- The Private hospitals should not demand fees in advance from the patients and the patients be asked to only give details of their Aadhar card and PAN card and if later found from the PAN card details that the patient was capable of making payments then the amount can be accordingly recovered.
- The State Government is directed to immediately procure maximum testing kits so as to enable even the private laboratories in the private hospitals to carry out the Coronavirus testing at the Government rates.
- COVID Care Centre A (CCC A) – This is required to quarantine high risk suspects who cannot maintain social distancing at home. This facility may not be available in the hospital. Once result of the test is available they may be discharged or kept for repeat test if required.
- COVID Care Centre B (CCC B) – Here asymptomatic positive cases and cases with mild symptoms should be admitted. Stable patients with history of fever, sore throat, loss of smell etc. fall into this category.
- Day and night, regular ambulances and ICU on wheels must be made available in adequate numbers for quick and safe transfer. Same will apply to the dead body vans.
- The Government is directed to raise a computarised COVID Control Center at a place convenient to it. It must have complete real – time information of each facility. It should be accessible to everyone including the public. It should be connected to each facility on computers as well as phones. All ambulances too should be connected to it. The Control Centre must be erected on war footing. All complaints and grievances must be directed to the Control Centre.
- No patient should be made to run from one hospital to the other begging for admission. Unfortunately this has happened in the past and still continues. He can contact the control center, and procure the necessary information he needs.
- A website Control Centre should be created for everyone to know about various actions that may be taken.
- CCC A and CCC B may be kept under treatment of required number of medical officers but supervised by a competent Physician. They should work under the guidance of specialists at the DCHC and DCH. Timely and healthy communication will save many lives.
- Critical Care Specialists, anesthetists, infectious disease specialists and pulmonologists are the backbone of every DCHC and DCH. Their dedication and efforts will make a difference between life and death.
- Treatment protocol, evolved by the local specialists based on the guidelines from the center and ICMR, local conditions and available resources and past experiences must be followed in all facilities. They should be oriented and sent to each unit.
- A representative of Government must be available at each center for coordination. He should be in constant touch with the Control Center. Strict discharge policy must be created and followed to avoid unnecessary stay for wrong reasons.
- All the Government hospitals with more than 50 beds and ICU need to be immediately converted into DCHC and DCH. The Government must implement this conversion immediately. They may keep 20% of their beds for emergency work. If any of the 80% beds remain unutilized for the COVID patients, they may use them for routine cases with the permission of the Control Center and the safety of non-COVID patients should not be compromised.
- The present Head of each of these Government hospitals will be responsible for his hospital turned into COVID facility. It will be his duty to ensure smooth functioning and liasion with the control centre.
- Excess staff from one hospital may be transferred to the other required by the Control Centre.
- The Government should provide high quality N95 mask, sanitizer, sterile and non sterile gloves, PPE kits, ventury and high flow oxygen mask, ventilator tubings, filters and similar items to all the COVID facilities at its own expense.
- All the healthcare workers must be tested at regular intervals as deemed fit by the experts. The society is safe only if they are safe.
Public Duty Of Private Hospitals
Furthermore, the bench stated that it was high time that the private hospitals step in to deliver adequate healthcare to their people, instead of wanting to profit off people's perils.
"Bound by a sense of duty, responsibility and empathy, it is now salient that the private hospitals step in to deliver adequate healthcare to their people…At least in times like these when men and women and children are dying alone, we expect the private hospitals to be the giver of life and not the harbinger of death," the bench remarked.
The court has thus ordered the state to initiate legal action against those private hospitals that refuse to enter into a MoU for mandatory treatment of COVID affected patients.
"We direct the State Government to initiate appropriate legal proceedings against all those private/corporate hospitals who are not ready and willing to honour the understanding arrived at with regard to treating the COVID¬19 patients including those who are not agreeable or willing to cooperate and enter into an MoU.
We direct the State Government to institute prosecution against all responsible persons of the concerned hospitals for the offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 57 and 58 respectively of the Disaster Management Act," the order states.
The matter will be next considered on May 29, and the State Government has been directed to file an exhaustive report with respect to all the directions and suggestions, as contained in the order.
Case Title: Suo Moto v. State of Gujarat (and other batch of petitions)
Case No.: Suo Moto PIL No. 42/2020
Quorum: Justices J B Pardiwala and Justice Ilesh J Vora