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India went into a lockdown owing to the novel coronavirus on March 24th 2020. Since then we have seen that the number of COVID-19 cases does not seem to stop. With the passing time, the Government enabled a low transition to reopen after the lockdown. For the same, the Central Government laid down two National Directives for COVID-19 Management, one on May 30th and the other on June 29th. The Karnataka Government too issued guidelines called the Standard Operating Procedure, which listed social distancing and safety measures for various occasions during the pandemic. Violation of the aforementioned provisions is subject to legal action. There have been allegations of the violation of safety and social distancing orders by public and political figures in Karnataka. The same was questioned before the Karnataka High Court by the way of a Public Interest Litigation.
Facts of the Issue
The aforementioned Plea was filed as two applications by two advocates. The first by Advocate G.R. Mohan, and the second by Advocate Puthige Ramesh. There were three allegations highlighted in these applications.
First being, that the former Chief Minister, a highly influential man in the State of Karnataka, organised a marriage ceremony for his family member, without keeping in mind social distancing provisions. The alleged public figure in question was the former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Photos and videos of the wedding went viral, depicting a violation of the social distancing guidelines like not wearing masks and lockdown norms like large gatherings. However, Kumaraswamy claimed that no one from outside attended the wedding and also that the venue was shifted to a green zone, to adhere to the lockdown norms. This incident is noted to have taken place on April 17, 2020. In court, the Petitioner Advocate Ramesh argued that till date no legal action has been taken against politicians for violating COVID-19 safety norms.
Secondly, the Court was told that the ceremony conducted on June 27 to commemorate the erection of the 108-foot tall statue of Kempegowda, did not follow the necessary social distancing norms either. The ceremony in question is pooja and commemoration of the construction of the aforementioned statue, in front of the international airport in Bangalore.
Third, being the safety violations that took place during the cycle protest rally in Bangalore on June 29. The rally took place to protest the spike in petrol prices. There have been allegations of the rally violating gathering orders and non-compliance to wearing marks. It has been noted that a day after the aforementioned rally, Karnataka reported more than 1000 cases in a single day. Bengaluru alone saw more than 700 cases on Sunday. The party claimed to have obtained permission to gather 200 people while maintaining adequate social distancing and precautionary measures.
Another important observation made before the Court by Advocate Ramesh was that there were several inconsistencies in the written submissions filed by the State Government. This shows bias towards publicly and politically influential persons.
Legal Provisions Involved
The afore-stated examples by the Petitioner call for different guidelines and legal provisions. When India first went into lockdown for 21 days, the citizens were strictly forbidden to conduct any public gathering, except funerals with a capacity of twenty people, until the relaxation and release of further guidelines on April 20th, 2020.
While, from June 1st 2020, India went in “Unlock 1.0”. Ministry of Home Affairs issues guidelines to be followed till June 30, 2020. The Government allowed for gatherings limited to fifty people. These guidelines allowed for religious places in “non-containment” zones to open, but with maintaining a distance of a minimum of six feet between the worshippers.
Both of the aforementioned guidelines were issues under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Non-compliance of these guidelines could call for legal action against the individual under Section 51 to 60 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. These Sections state in detail, offences and penalties for non-compliance with the directions laid by the State or Central Government under the said Act. These Sections impose a punishment ranging from one to two years of imprisonment or a fine or both.
Along with this Section 188 Indian Penal Code, which deals with disobedience to follow orders promulgated by public servants, will also be attracted for non-compliance of these orders. This section imposes a punishment of either a month of imprisonment, fine of Rs.200 or both.
The Government of Karnataka also issued precautionary measures of its own, under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Sections 2 and 2-A of the Epidemic Diseases Act places powers among the State Governments to take certain actions when they are satisfied that the State is visited or threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease.
Thus, came into the picture the Karnataka Epidemic Disease Ordinance, 2020. Sections 4, 15 and 17 of this Ordinance empowered the State Government to issue these guidelines. The measures imposed strict maintenance of social distancing of one metre along with wearing masks in “Public places”. Non-compliance of these said orders will be met with a fine of Rs.200 for violation in Municipal Corporation areas and Rs.100 in others.
The Court was also made to look into Section 283 of the Indian Penal Code which dealt with a penalty for obstructing public ways or lines of navigation.
The Court opined that the State must enforce the adequate provisions in place irrespective of the influence of the individual in question. The Court mainly focused on non-violation of the guidelines issued under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
Another observation was made with regard to violation of the guidelines during the protest rally on June 29 2020. Instead of filing for action under the Disaster Management Act, the violators were only convicted under Section 283 of the Indian Penal Code. This said Section does not deal with a violation of COVID-19 guidelines but only deals with obstruction of public navigation. Only a fine of Rs. 200 was imposed on the violators.
The Court also directed the State to issue a summary of all the action being taken against the violators of the guidelines issued under the Disaster Management Act. These actions must be under Section 51 to 60 of the Disaster Management Act or Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
This judgement shows the reliability of India’s judiciary. It highlights the morals our judiciary stands on, that is, “Justice is blind”. This judgement also shows how serious India is about its fight against the novel coronavirus.
Author: Vidhi Basrani from O.P. Jindal Global University.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.