The live streaming of Gujarat High Court's suo motu public interest litigation (PIL) expressing concern about the COVID situation in the state has been viewed by more than 94,000 people so far. During the hearing, about 9,000 people were watching the court proceedings, making this a pathbreaking development in bringing the judicial process closer to people and letting them follow a life-and-death issue that affects them. Chief justice Vikram Nath expressed dissatisfaction with how the state government had handled the COVID situation and directed the Gujarat government to submit a detailed affidavit by 14th April based on today's hearing. Earlier, the chief justice had asked the chief secretary and principal secretary to join the online hearing.
The public response and the Gujarat High Court’s decision to allow the hearings to be viewed by the public is a new milestone in India’s judicial process and has gladdened activists and lawyers who have been pushing for live streaming and legal transcriptions to create a better record of court proceedings. Specialised legal journals, such as Barandbench.com and livelaw.com who do an excellent job of live tweeting all important court hearings had already opened the doors to more transparency. The Gujarat government action is the next step forward in this process. Many legal experts believe, that this transparency will have big benefits for litigants and also hasten the decisions in the long run.
Taking a serious note of the worsening coronavirus situation, especially regarding the healthcare system and infrastructure, the Gujarat HC had observed on Sunday that the state was heading towards a health emergency. Taking suo motu cognizance, the HC had filed a fresh PIL regarding the situation making the state and Central governments respondents.
During the hearing on Monday, chief justice Nath said, "People are dying even after getting both doses of the vaccine. It is good, but it is not fool-proof. You cannot admit all COVID positive patients in hospitals, because there are no beds. I have been told that patients have been refused admission even if the hospital has beds. Even smaller districts in Gujarat are having high number of cases. Government should take care that all basic amenities including testing are provided to tackle the spread."
The bench of chief justice Nath and justice Bhargav D Karia also observed that without the help of people, we cannot fight this pandemic. Justice Karia says, "Last time, the isolation of positive patients was being done vigorously, now no efforts are being made. There seems to be a breach between the government and the people. Unless the chain is broken, this will never come to an end. Earlier, people were afraid of moving outdoors, now they have become careless."
"We are not happy with certain policies of the government," chief justice Nath says, adding, "No doubt it is doing its best, but some things need to be corrected."
The bench posed a salvo of questions to the attorney general on various fronts due to which the present uncontrolled situation arose.
"Initially, when the pandemic struck last year, people were advised to home quarantine and also get treated at home. Now why have you changed it and insist on hospitalisation? Why are you insisting that Remdesivir should only be available at hospitals and not for home patients quarantined who require the injections? Why is it not being available at all the hospitals? Why is it not available for anyone who needs it? Controlling these injections by supply from one outsourced agency is not at all in public interest," the bench asked.
As the Court asked the government what steps were taken to ensure the reduction of staff in various offices, the advocate general said that only the paan shop owners association had come forward and voluntarily had decided to shut down for the weekends.
"Then they are acting with more wisdom and responsibility," the Court observed.
The Court also stressed that fighting this pandemic was impossible without the cooperation of people, but "the people had lost trust in administration."
"We are not happy with many of the policies of the government and there are some things which need to be corrected. At least people should feel that government is doing something. At present there is a total deficit in trust of people in the administration. That trust should be restored," the bench maintained.
The Court also suggested reducing the number of people allowed in marriage functions to 50 from 100.
Justice Karia also suggested that just like during the election process, booth-level micro-level planning be done and a booth-level official should be assigned accountability over a particular booth's Covid situation.
The bench also questioned the role of the Central government. "When the centre feels that a state is not doing well, why can't it intervene," the bench asked additional solicitor general Devang Vyas, who represented the Union government.
The live streaming of the hearing on YouTube was viewed by more than 94,000 people from across the country.
Advocate Jamshed Mistry, who has been urging for live streaming of court proceedings and legal transcriptions of the proceedings, feels that it is for the first time that people are able to participate in the judicial process on an issue that affects the people.
"This is important since the chief justice of Gujarat HC had taken up this issue on a suo motu basis and had taken the unusual step of asking the chief secretary and principal secretary to join online. Also unlike what has been happening so far, 9000 people were able to log in simultaneously," Advocate Mistry says.
The Supreme Court appointed e-committee has put out a vision document which includes transcription and live streaming for courts in India. Therefore, it was wonderful to see the Gujarat high court opting for live streaming of the PIL.
During today's hearing, the bench also lashed out at the state government over the use of Remdesivir as well as the long time taken for test reports in Gujarat.
While imploring the state to ramp up testing, chief justice Nath observed that it takes a common man three days to get a test done, and results come five days later. "For people like you and me, we can speed things up, but a common man cannot," he told advocate general (AG) Kamal Trivedi, who represented the state government.
The AG contended that testing can be done at 97 centres across the state of which 43 are government facilities and the government will add 40 more centres soon. "Door to door surveys and more than 3000 mobile vans have also been pressed into service to conduct testing," he says.
Responding on the shortage of Remdesivir in Gujarat, the AG informed the bench that this was not a drug for corona and it is being prescribed by doctors since it reduces hospitalisation period for a COVID patient. Stressing that Remdesivir is for emergency use only, the attorney general told the bench that people are hoarding Remdesivir in the anxiety that they may need it.
"We request them not to do that. It causes liver and kidney damage, so we do not recommend its use at home. Doctors are indiscriminately prescribing it," the AG says.
Earlier, the HC had advised the Gujarat government to impose a three-four day lock-down, and take appropriate measures to check COVID-19 cases.
"But it has been five days since. Newspapers and channels are flooded with harrowing tales, unfortunate and unimaginable difficulties, unmanageable conditions of infrastructure, the shortfall and deficit of not only testing facilities, but availability of beds, intensive care units (ICUs), supply of oxygen and basic medicines like Remdesivir," chief justice Vikram Nath had said in his order on Sunday.
"A perusal of some news would indicate that the state is heading towards a health emergency of sorts. Accordingly, I direct the HC registry to register this as a suo motu fresh PIL titled 'Uncontrolled upsurge and serious management issues in COVID control' by impleading the Gujarat government through the chief secretary, the principal secretary, health and family welfare department, and the central government through the department of home and the health ministry," he ordered.
The chief justice also ordered a copy of his order to be forwarded to AG Trivedi, government pleader Manisha Luv Kumar, and additional solicitor general Vyas.
The next hearing in the matter is scheduled on 15th April.
Gujarat on Sunday saw a new high of 5,469 cases, taking its tally to 347,000, while the death toll rose to 4,800 with 54 fresh fatalities.
In April so far, the state has added 39,797 cases at an average of 3,618 daily, while in March, it had seen 37,809 cases, with an average of 1,220 per day.