Legalities & liabilities during the 2020-21 pandemic

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The year 2020-21 was a devastating year for the world when a virus forced almost all the countries to shut down. This was due to the coronavirus which originated in the city of Wuhan, China. There have been more than 200 million cases and around 4 million deaths resulting in a pandemic which would go down in history. The coronavirus results in an infectious disease which can be traced back to the original virus, namely, COVID-19. The infected people will experience respiratory illness. In the disguise of a mere cold or sinus infection, this virus may grow to become troublesome. It is known to be highly communicable and not detectable for the first few days. This resulted in multiple false negative cases across the world due to which the spread of the virus increased. It is necessary in these times to beware of the underlining rules and preventive measures to prevent the further spread of this virus. The virus had properties which allowed it to stay on surfaces and subsequently may enter your body through respiratory tracks or during food consumption. Consequently, it required everyone to efficiently wash their hands, wear masks and continuously maintain a safe distance from another individual. Although these guidelines seemed necessary during a strict lockdown, they were not easy when the government tried to be lenient with the lockdown restrictions in order to initiate business and economic activities. In a populous country like India, every business activity has many competitors and a huge customer base. This customer base tends to gather at any shop. Additionally, people wanted to meet for religious gatherings which would increase the spread of coronavirus. The elections during these times also led to a spike in the number of cases of COVID-19. Therefore, these huge mass gatherings were a reason for the second wave of the virus.

In India, there have been safety measures for mass gatherings during COVID times. The disaster management act, 2005 was enforced during the lockdown times along with the epidemic diseases Act, 1897. This gave the Chairperson of the state executive committee to issue orders in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The following orders helped in isolating the virus within micro communities.

  1. S.144 of the IPC was imposed
  2. Medical and other essential services are to be exempted and their movements or operations are to be unrestricted.
  3. All beaches, gyms, playgrounds, cinema halls, amusement parks, drama theatres, water parks, restaurants, bars, hotels etc.  or any place of gathering was closed.
  4. Local authorities were ordered to supervise these places and ensure no mass gathering.
  5. Every vehicle also had strict restrictions regarding seating capacity.
  6. Schools and colleges were shut down until further notice.
  7. Manufacturing sector was closed in the first lockdown but in the second lockdown they were given strict parameters which they had to follow in order to carry on their manufacturing activities.
  8. E-commerce sector had to switch to essential services also.

These strict guidelines or orders were to be followed or hefty fines would be placed on the businesses itself. According to the orders given by the governments across India, anyone failing to follow any order will have to pay the fine and the same fine would be diverted towards the aid during COVID-19. The orders had IPC sections implemented also, therefore it may create criminal liabilities also. As per IPC whoever fails to follow section 144 shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both. In the epidemic diseases act, the offence would be cognizable and non-bailable. The official punishment would be from three months and can be extended upto five years. The fine may also go upto 2 lakh rupees. Furthermore, IPC also used section 188(Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) to fine or punish the offender with imprisonment with a tenure extending upto 6 months. The epidemic diseases act though enforced had incidents where the family members chose a method of violence against healthcare workers when they failed to heal the patient. The violators of this code may also be charged with section 320 of the IPC and their punishments may increase to 6 years and with a fine starting from one lakh rupees but which may extend to five lakh rupees. These punishments were imposed on many who broke rules. Individuals travelling without a good-enough reason had their vehicles confiscated and they were asked to recover them through court recommended procedure. These strict parameters helped to curb the pandemic and bring the situation in control. People feared these punishments and that is why they did attempt to break the rule. Once the lockdown was unlocked in stages, people started travelling and the spread increased again. Subsequently, elections, kumbh-mela and multiple gatherings of a huge scale, which could have been the source of the second wave.

The DM Act immensely empowers the NDMA and the central government. So much so that regardless of any law in effect, the Central Government can issue instructions to any authority anywhere in India to assist and contribute in disaster management. Failure to follow such directions leads to violation of the act. Under Section 51, anyone refusing or failing to follow orders is liable for punishment with imprisonment up to one year, or fine, or both. Article 52 guarantees imprisonment for almost two years and a fine on any person making false claims to gain relief benefits. Article 54 enforces imprisonment of one year or a fine on anyone circulating false alarms about the severity of a disaster. These two articles of the act, i.e. Article 52 and 54 have gained importance in the recent times. This is because, lately, a lot of news and updates about COVID have been flooding social media platforms which fail to check the credibility of the news.

During the West-Bengal and the Delhi elections, the ECI issued strict guidelines which had to be followed during rallies and political gatherings. The failure to follow these rules were to be followed by trials under the disaster management act and the epidemic diseases act. The lockdown in various States resulted in panic, non-employment, scarcity of food, and other essentials. Due to scarcity of food, lack of employment, and lack of facility to travel from one State to another State, the migrants walked long distances and this resulted in physical agony trauma to several migrants, including several violations of human rights. As a part of the West Bengal Assembly Election, the political parties organized various meetings and rallies in West Bengal in March and April 2021. Due to gatherings in rallies and meetings the State of West Bengal witnessed a rapid increase in Covid- 19 cases. A social activist filed a case of culpable homicide against Deputy Election Commissioner In-Charge of West Bengal, accusing the Election Commission of India (EC) of “deliberate and intentional omission” leading to her husband’s death. According to her Election Commission had shown “complete unpreparedness, negligence, lack of accountability and utmost disregard towards the lives of the common people”. The Madras High Court while passing a remark had said that murder charges should probably be imposed on the panel (Election Commission) for being “the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today”.

Indian migrant workers have faced numerous challenges during the pandemic brought upon by Covid-19. The initial imposing of the lockdown caused the industry to come to a sudden standstill in the country and factories/workplaces were the primary victims of this situation. Hence, crores of migrant workers had to face the ill effects of the same, which included sudden loss of income, shortage of food and complete uncertainty of what the future holds. This was followed by several of these workers and their families going hungry. The situation was so intense and terrifying for these people as they had never really received a formal education and hence were unaware of the science behind the situation. Thousands of migrants began to walk back home as there was no access to any means of transport because of the lockdown. The Central and State Governments responded to this fiasco by taking various measures in order to help these people and later managed to arrange exclusive transport for them. The highlight of the situation was that 198 migrant workers died due to this lockdown in the name of road accidents and starvation.

Cases of workers being arrested for violation of law and order were rising day by day as majority of these people were uneducated and were unaware of strict rules and regulations that were put forth by the government to tackle the pandemic. Migrants were often caught violating social distancing norms, flouting curfew timings as they always moved in huge groups as according to some of them, they would rather die from the virus at their own village than starving due to absence of work in the urban jungles. Sadly, many workers also fell to their deaths in utmost unexpected situations such as stampedes caused by their own overcrowding, sleeping on railway tracks to take rest while migrating on foot, etc.

Media houses were having a field day with the issue by reporting instances of the police brutality faced by migrants in the form of violence, negligence and abuse and touting it as a threat to human rights. All in all, the entire matter was very complex and confusing and so it was very difficult to pick a side given the fact that nobody was really right or wrong for wanting to go back to their family or wanting to maintain law and order.

Government intervention was the only hope for an understanding to come in place for the whole drama in order to come to a conclusion suitable for both parties.

The state governments of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh decided to revise their respective labor laws temporarily with the vision of attracting industries and investments. Labor unions such as the Bandhua Mukti Morcha obviously criticized this decision as it was seen to be harmful for the migrant workers due to the fact that the employers would be getting more authority. Many unions sought to take this up to the International Labor Organization, to which the ILO assured them by confirming the fact that they had been contacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On 30th of March, the Supreme Court of India agreed to hear a petition put forth by the migrant workers. The Central Government was asked by the Supreme Court to file a status report pertaining to the situation of migrant workers who were already worried about their survival due to the fake news being circulated about a possible 3-month extension of the lockdown. The Supreme Court also added that the response from the government up till that point was found to be quite satisfactory.

The Supreme Court rejected a plea requesting payment of minimum wage on 21 April by justifying the decision with the fact that the migrants were already being provided free meals through respective State Government funds.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the unions that directed the District Magistrates to provide free transport and relief to identified migrant workers, was rejected by Supreme Court on May 16th. While talking about the casualties of migrant workers that took place on the railway tracks of Aurangabad, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that it could not have been prevented. Moreover, the Central Government suggested the migrant workers to not walk but instead to wait their turn as inter state transport arrangements had already been made for them.

The Indian Supreme Court on 26 May admitted that the issues of the migrants were still very evident and had not been solved due to certain inadequacies and lapses on the governments’ part. As a result, the Centre and States were instructed to provide shelter, free food and transport to the migrant workers who were stranded. Senior Lawyers from Mumbai and Delhi wrote a pretty stern letter to the Supreme Court with regard to its leniency towards the government thus far. This turned out to be a pretty big influencing factor hours before the ruling.

Another such case that took the entire nation by storm was that of Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighi Jamaat is an Islamic Movement that encourages its members to lead lives a certain way and often arranges gatherings to promote the same. During the initial period of the pandemic, they had planned one such procession in India that became an issue of national interest.

The Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in Delhi witnessed the Tablighi Jamaat religious meet, something that was touted as a super spreader covid event with more than 4 thousand confirmed cases and minimum 27 deaths across the country, linked to this event. The meet was said to have been attended by at least 9 thousand missionaries from various states across India along with approximately 960 foreign national attendants. The super spreader was responsible for 4291 or a third of the country’s total cases at that time, as reported by the Union Health Ministry on April 18. Roughly 40 thousand people related to the case in one way or the other were quarantined throughout the country.

The Government of Delhi had issued strict orders banning movement in March and hence , criminal cases were filed against attendees of the event in courts all over India.

State Governments across the country were instructed by the Union Home Ministry to track down approx. 824 foreign nationals and later deport them post screening and identification. The Home Ministry identified all such people and blacklisted their visas for violating the The Foreigners Act of 1946 along side the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and instructed state governments to proceed legally with the same. An FIR was filed by the Delhi Government against the head of the Nizamuddin proceeding of Tablighi, Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi. The Delhi Police launched an investigation on the basis of a voice recording that showcased encouragement provided by the leader to pray fearlessly and disregard the pandemic. Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of UP was very vocal about his stand on the whole situation and condemned the act by invoking the National Security Act against them. In the coming days, foreign national officials of the Tablighi were arrested in Patna and Thane for flouting lockdown rules and visiting places of worship.

Despite of testing negative and serving a long quarantine period, as of early May, 3 thousand plus Tablighi members were still waiting to be released. Meanwhile, the CBI (Criminal Bureau of Investigation) had started their own inquiry into the financial activity of the group as they suspected odd behavior and fishy transactions. However, the Supreme Court was told by the government that a CBI probe was needed in connection with the procession.

The High Court of Karnataka imposed a 10-year ban on 9 foreign Tablighi members from visiting India. The Supreme Court took no time to strike down this order as a response to one of the attendant’s plea. The SC also went on to declare that the high court order should not be considered by the government in case of future visa applications by any of the accused.

Due to contradictory statements given by the witnesses and failure on the prosecution’s part to prove the presence of the accused inside Markaz premises, the Delhi High Court on 15 Dec 20, had to dismiss all cases against those detained.

The Kumbh Mela, a centuries old Hindu traditional meet centered around mass gatherings washing off their sins in the holy river, was also one such case that drew criticism on a national level and left law and order structure rattled for weeks.

To sum things up, the covid 19 pandemic has been a very tricky and unexpected situation if you look at it from the law and order perspective. No government in the world was ready to handle something that would impact lives for 2 years straight, let alone think about the legal challenges or threats it would pose to the economy and population. Only time will tell if the existing law and order structure is enough to withhold existing and upcoming challenges put forth by the pandemic.

Author: Rahee Chaudhari, SLS, Pune

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India.

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