‘Clampdown on Social Media COVID Appeals Equal to Contempt’: SC

SC told the Centre that there should be free flow of information, adding that “we should hear voices of citizens”.

Updated
Law
6 min read
COVID-19 cases, death numbers in India. Image used for representational purposes. 
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A Supreme Court Bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud on Friday, 30 April, warned the Centre and states against the alleged clampdown on social media.

The top court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao, and S Ravindra Bhat was hearing a suo motu case on issues, such as shortage of essential drugs, vaccination, the oxygen crisis, and various other policies, pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Advocates Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora joined the hearing as amicus curiae.

The matter has now been posted for 10 May. Interim directions will be uploaded on Saturday, 1 May.

On Social Media Clampdown of Information

The Supreme Court, on Friday, warned that no state should clampdown on information if citizens communicate their grievances on social media, adding that doing so will be treated as contempt of court.

We don’t want any clampdown of information. We will treat it as contempt of court if such grievance is considered for action. Let a strong message go to all the states and DGP of states. Clampdown of information is contrary to basic precepts. I flag this issue at the outset. We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievances on social media and the internet then it cannot be said its wrong information.
Justice DY Chandrachud, as per Bar and Bench

SC told the Centre that there should be free flow of information, adding, “We should hear voices of citizens.”

On the Oxygen Crisis

The court said it will also hear citizens crying for oxygen cylinders.

“The ground situation in Delhi is that oxygen isn't really available and it is the same in Gujarat and Maharashtra. The government has to tell us what difference will be there from today and the next day of the hearing,” Chandrachud said.

Meanwhile, the Centre on its part had claimed before the court that there is no shortage of medical oxygen in the country.

SC Advises HCs To Avoid ‘Off-The-Cuff’ Remarks

The SC asked high courts to exercise restraint in making “off-the-cuff remarks” during hearings.

In response to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s complaint about certain strong observations made by the high courts while hearing cases, Justice Chandrachud pointed out that as judges they must also confront that this is a new time that they are living in, where every word that they say becomes part of social media.

“But judges also need to exercise restraint. Because off-the-cuff remarks by them can be damaging to people. Though we have given high courts liberty to proceed, judges need to show restraint to avoid off-the-cuff remarks.”   
Justice Chandrachud

Justice Chandrachud also, as per Livelaw, stated that it is not that they are fearful of their remarks.

“Of course, we are independent! It is only because of the serious ramifications that off-the-cuff remarks about private citizens have.”

He, further, added: "Even when we are criticising a judgement of a high court, we don't say exactly what is in our heart and we exercise a degree of restraint. We would only expect that as freedom has been given to the high courts to deal with these issues, certain off-the-cuff remarks, which are not necessary may be avoided.”

Ensure No Local Address Proof Is Asked of COVID Patients for Admission: SC

Addressing concerns over hospitals seeking address proof in Delhi-NCR, the Apex Court asked the Centre to make uniform policy for admission of COVID-19 patients.

SC asked the Centre to ensure no local address proof of COVID patients are asked for admission.

Further, the court pointed out that creating new structures or committees will not help anyone and that “we will have to avail all available resources”.

‘Talk to the Centre’: SC to Delhi Govt

The Apex Court also told the Delhi government to “keep politics aside” and talk to the Centre amid the horrific COVID-19 crisis.

“We told the Centre how it has a special responsibility towards Delhi but we need to send a message to the highest levels of your government, that in this humanitarian crisis we don’t want lives to be lost in political bickering.”

Further, the court pointed out that politics is for election, and that “at this time of humanitarian crisis each and every life needs to be taken care of”.

On Manufacture of Vaccines and Drugs

The court further suggested that the Centre should show the investments made by it to ramp up the manufacture of vaccines.

Justice Chandrachud also raised the pertinent issue of shortage of COVID medicines, noting how Maharashtra imported from Bangladesh under Section 107A of Patents Act.

He asked whether the Centre had considered invoking Section 92 of the Patents Act so that drugs can be manufactured whilst the royalty is sorted out between the government and patentee. The top court judge asked how much increase in production and demand was there for Remdesivir from various states.

“Why should the court not issue directions under sections 100 and 92 to enable generics to manufacture these drugs without the fear of legal action? Is the logistical concern more important than right to health,” asked Justice Chandrachud noting that “vaccine pricing is extremely important”.

Justice Bhat noted that manufacturers charge the Centre Rs 150, but for states, it’s priced at Rs 300 or Rs 400. “Why should we, as a nation pay this, the price difference becomes Rs 30,000 crore to Rs 40,000 crore, even when we have paid for this. No point for price difference. We are not directing it, but you should look into it,” said Justice Bhat.

He added that this was a national emergency, and rules 19 and 20 of the Drugs Price Control order mandates the Centre to control the price of drugs, whether or not the states procure it from the Centre or the manufacturers.

What Else Did the Court Say?

Justice Chandrachud started the hearing by noting that the SC’s role is to play a “dialogical role through judicial review so that the thought process is initiated by policy makers”. The top court highlighted certain issues, as reported by Bar and Bench.

  • Can a mechanism be developed for real-time updates on allocation of oxygen to hospitals?
  • What are the restrictions like lockdown that the Centre had taken to curb the spread of COVID-19? What measures have been taken to make sure supply of tankers and cylinders reach, especially the 800 tankers?
  • What is the expected supply of vaccine? How do Central and state governments enable vaccine registration for illiterates or don't have access to the internet?
  • What about vaccinating crematorium workers? Has the Centre considered invoking Section 92 of the Patents Act to grant compulsory licences in the face of an emergency like this?
  • Why is the Central government not buying 100 percent of doses, since it’s best placed to determine equity and disburse? When will the 50 percent disbursal be sent? Whether procurement is done for Centre or states, it is for citizens. Why should there be two prices?
  • Why is procurement centralised, but distribution decentralised?
  • Will one state get priority access over another in getting the vaccines? Centre says 50 percent will be procured by states for vaccines. How will the vaccine manufacturers ensure equity?

More Details

Justice Chandrachud questioned the Centre on ensuring facilities for local capacity, and how it was supporting the infrastructure for states that can cope. He also asked how testing labs were tracking the second mutant variant of COVID, which he observed, was not getting detected in RT-PCR tests. He noted how medical centres were driving away patients without a positive report or were otherwise charging very high amounts.

If there is a shortage, how are temporary COVID treatment centres being set up, questioned the judge, pulling up the Centre on what guidelines for admittance of patients, as well as whether there is a policy of non-admission for those not infected with COVID.

The judge further asked how doctors are being safeguarded and treated for COVID and what protocol was in place for shortage of medical staff.

As chaos over the unavailability of vaccines and crumbling health infrastructure continues, at least 19 states and 1 UT have expressed the inability to start the vaccination drive for people in the age group of 18-44 from 1 May.

India on Friday reported 3,86,452 new COVID-19 cases, 3,498 deaths, and 2,97,540 discharges in the last 24 hours, as per the Union Health Ministry. The total cases in the country now stand at 1,87,62,976.

(With inputs from Live Law, Bar and Bench and PTI.)

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