"We are playing complementary role. If High Courts have any difficulty in dealing with issues due to territorial limitations, we will help," said the bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat.
Terming the massive resurgence of COVID-19 cases a ‘national crisis’, the Supreme Court Tuesday said it cannot remain a “mute spectator” and made clear that its suo motu proceeding on devising national policy for COVID-19 management is not meant to supplant high court hearings.
A bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud said the high courts are in a better position to monitor the pandemic situation within their territorial boundaries and the apex court was playing a complementary role and its “intervention must be understood in the correct perspective” as there are some matters which transcend the regional boundaries.
“There is a need for top court’s intervention on certain national issues as there might be matters related to coordination between states”, it said, adding, “by the pendency of these proceedings, the High Courts are not restrained from continuing to deal with the issue that they are seized of”.
“We are playing complementary role. If High Courts have any difficulty in dealing with issues due to territorial limitations, we will help,” said the bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat.
The bench clarified the purpose behind its “suo motu intervention” and said it was not to “supplant the high courts and not to take over the valuable role that they have taken under Article 226 of the constitution”.
“At the same time, it is also important for the Supreme Court to intervene to look into the systemic, national issues and ensure the coordination at a national level and between the states, which high courts may find difficult to deal with. This is a national crisis and the Supreme Court, being the national constitutional court, cannot be a silent spectator.”
These observations assume significance as some lawyers had criticized the apex court on April 22 for taking suo motu cognizance of the pandemic’s resurgence and issues by saying that high courts be allowed to continue with hearings.
A day later on April 23, a bench headed by the then CJI S A Bobde, who has retired, took a very strong exception to “unfair” criticism by some lawyers for “something which was not part of its order” in the suo motu case and had said “this is how institution is being destroyed”.
In the hearing conducted via video conferencing, it also asked the Centre to apprise the top court of the modalities on distribution of oxygen as well as the vaccines to states and the monitoring mechanism.
It appointed senior advocates Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora as amicus curiae to assist it in the COVID-19 management case as senior counsel Harish Salve had sought recusal following some controversial remarks by some lawyers.
It also sought information on projected demand for oxygen in the country and the steps which are being taken to “augment the availability of oxygen”, putting in place the mechanism to monitor supply of oxygen to states.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta urged the bench not to seek information about total availability of oxygen in the country.
“I have good reason for it. The oxygen is being augmented but I do not want to create any panic,” the law officer said and the bench acceded to his plea.
The law officer said the Centre does not oppose any constitutional courts if they seek any information on how the central government is dealing with this crisis.
He said “as a nation, we are dealing with the unprecedented surge. The coordination between the states inter se is a matter which is being looked into from the highest political executive level, by both the Centre and the states.”
The bench asked the Centre to clarify the issue of enhancement of the critical medical infrastructure- number of beds, treatment centres equipped with personnel, healthcare professionals, besides seeking details about availability of drugs such as Remdesivir.
The bench said that there was a need for a system of “seamless communication of their requirements from the district collectors to the Health Departments of the states to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and for a daily monitoring of the same”.
The bench on April 22 took note of the pandemic situation due to sudden surge in COVID-19 cases as also in mortality and said it expected the Centre to come out with a “national plan” to deal with distribution of essential services and supplies, including oxygen and drugs.
Observing that oxygen to patients infected with the virus is said to be an “essential part” of treatment, the top court had said it seemed that a certain amount of “panic” has been generated due to which people have approached several high courts seeking relief.