Three and a half decades ago Chief Justice of India YV Chandrachud foresaw a greater threat to the independence of the judiciary from within than without. On Thursday a Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao dismissed a plea by six retired bureaucrats seeking the appointment of an independent inquiry commission under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, into the Union government’s alleged “gross mismanagement” of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.
Credibility in the functioning of the justice delivery system and reasonable satisfaction of the affected parties are relevant considerations to ensure public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. Of late, the Supreme Court has increasingly come under public gaze for not living up to its role as guardian of our constitutional rights.
In the instant case the petitioners ~ KP Fabian, MG Devasahayam, Meena Gupta, Somasundar Burra, Amit Bhaduri and Madhu Bhaduri ~ had filed their petition due to anxiety and concern over the respondent’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the deleterious impact it had on the fundamental rights of citizens. Dismissing their petition, Justice Nageswara Rao noted that the situation had not been anticipated six months earlier and that “latitude had to be given to the government” for the lack of preparedness.
Appearing for the petitioners, advocate Prashant Bhushan argued that the respondent had failed to consult the National Task Force appointed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 18 March comprising experts in the fields of epidemiology and public health prior to imposition of nationwide lockdown and its subsequent extensions. The respondent ignored the advice of these experts and went ahead with the lockdown “that has spawned a humanitarian and economic crisis of Biblical proportions while failing to contain the spread of Covid-19.”
The importance of the inquiry resided in the fact that the respondent had stalled an inquiry by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee into responses to the pandemic. The petitioners’ plea stated that the inquiry was essential as multiple lapses had taken place such as the failure to undertake timely and effective measures for containing the transmission and spread of the disease within India despite being notified by WHO in January and failure to adhere to statutory obligations under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, including drawing up a National Plan under Section 11 or issuing guidelines for providing minimum standards of relief to vulnerable sections of society under Section 12.
Despite advisory and warning issued by the Home Ministry and experts, a gathering of 100,000 people was organised in Ahmedabad on 24 February 24. There had been a steep decline in the GDP as well as loss of jobs during the course of the lockdown. Imposition of the lockdown at four hours’ notice had a devastating impact on jobs, livelihood and the overall economy.
The commission of inquiry to be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court along with experts in the fields of epidemiology, medical science, public health and social sciences sought by the petitioners would have identified lapses as well as provided valuable lessons for dealing with future pandemics of this nature. The Supreme Court in its wisdom rejected the plea.