The Supreme Court will decide whether it can develop a ‘national plan’ to address the issues of supply of oxygen, drugs, vaccines and declaration of lockdowns during the second wave of the COVID pandemic.
As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic led to increasing cases (3.14 lakh cases on 21 April) in India, various High Courts were approached for relief. In various parts of the country, hospitals are running low on oxygen supplies. This is essential for the intensive care of COVID patients. People are also noticing a shortage of drugs such as Remdesivir.
To curb this second wave, there is increasing pressure on all fronts to increase vaccination numbers. ‘Lockdown’ restrictions to slow the spread of the virus are also being discussed and debated once again.
In the third week of April, various High Courts are being approached by petitioners including hospitals and patients, requesting urgent relief. For instance, the Delhi High Court on 21 April 2021 ordered the Central Government to immediately supply oxygen to Max Hospitals. The Bombay High Court ordered the State Government to provide Remdesivir in Nagpur. The Supreme Court noted that at least 6 High Courts had taken active steps: Delhi, Bombay, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, Calcutta and Allahabad. The Madras High Court has also heard requests for relief.
CJI Bobde’s bench took suo moto cognisance of these issues while hearing Vedanta's plea to reopen its Sterlite plant to produce oxygen. The bench also comprises of J Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat. The Chief Justice noted that disparate approaches in High Courts 'may have the effect of accelerating and prioritising the services to a certain set of people and slowing down the availability of these resources to certain other groups'.
The bench seeks to create a national plan on 4 issues: supply of oxygen, supply of essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination. It sought the Centre's response on setting up a 'coordination body' for allocation of these resources and other measures to coordinate transport. It also asked the Centre's opinion on declaring these resources 'essential commodities'.
The bench will also deal with the question of whether High Courts can impose lockdowns through judicial power. The Allahabad High Court had ordered the Uttar Pradesh Government to impose lockdown in 5 cities. The Supreme Court has stayed that order on appeal.
The bench issued notice to the Centre, States/Union Territories and parties before High Courts on the matter. It also appointed Senior Advocate Harish Salve as amicus curiae to assist the Court. On 23 April, an order was passed, on Salve's request, allowing him to recuse himself as amicus.
After CJI Bobde's retirement, he was replaced by Justice DY Chandrachud and a Special Bench hearing was conducted on 27 April. An order was passed laying out a framework of questions the Court would look into.
The case will be heard next on Friday, 30 April 2021.
1. Can the Supreme Court devise a national plan for the supply of oxygen, supply of essential drugs and the method and manner of vaccination?
2. If so, what steps can they order?
3. Is the power to order lockdowns solely with the State Government or can High Courts impose lockdowns?