Covid-19 in India: SC wrong on migrants, and also on private hospitals

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Published: May 29, 2020 5:00 AM

The first is the domain of Centre & states; if private hospitals make losses, the second will badly hit Covid treatment.

While it is nice to see a high authority coming down on governments for their lapses, it sets a dangerous precedent as this is clearly executive domain.While it is nice to see a high authority coming down on governments for their lapses, it sets a dangerous precedent as this is clearly executive domain.

Anyone who has read newspaper reports of, or watched on TV, the hardship faced by migrants while trying to save themselves from both the coronavirus and the misery caused by the lockdown will be happy that the Supreme Court has finally decided to act on the matter—more so since, just a few weeks ago, the SC had refused to entertain a plea on the matter. Detailed instructions have now been given by SC.

The states from where the migrants are leaving and the one to which they are returning will share the cost of the bus/train journey as per their arrangement, the Railways will provide meals and water during the journey … wherever migrants are found walking home, the concerned state will have to provide shelter and food, etc.

The instructions will be welcomed by the Centre which, instead of the state governments, got a lot of flak for the poor treatment of migrants, from the lack of food and water for them to the fact that several were making their way home on foot when there were no trains or buses; the photograph of a child trying to revive her dead mother at a Bihar railway station will forever remain etched in our memory.

While it is nice to see a high authority coming down on governments for their lapses, it sets a dangerous precedent as this is clearly executive domain. Any rational SC decision on whether or not the Centre and the states have done enough to take care of migrants has to depend upon the resources available, both physical and financial. Does any reasonable person think that several crore migrants could have been transported back to their home states within days? And, surely, the desire to spread the pandemic was reason enough for the original travel ban as this would also give the states time to prepare quarantine facilities?

The poor state the migrants found themselves in is also part of the failure, over several decades, to set up adequate delivery systems for food and other benefits in cash or kind; it is the failure of a system that focussed on spending on immediate subsidies instead of funding an elaborate social security system. Given this, an SC order to the Centre/states on providing more facilities to migrants appeals to our conscience, but it straitjackets their spending, and robs the executive of its discretion.

Similarly, the SC (a different bench) saying that hospitals that have received land for free “should treat them (Covid-19 patients) for free” is another egregious overreach, even though it was just an observation. Courts have to realise what it costs to deliver medical treatment today. To the extent private hospitals find it difficult to continue operations due to tariff caps put by central/state governments or obligations imposed by the courts, it is the common woman who will suffer.

While several private hospitals do overcharge, the fact is that treatment can be quite costly in government-run hospitals as well—if patients don’t pay for this, it is because the taxpayer is funding it directly. Sadly, the courts rarely appreciate this.

The SC should perhaps heed its own words. When it was petitioned, in April, to direct the government to pay wages to the vulnerable sections of the population that lost daily incomes because of the lockdown decision, the SC had rejected this saying, “Are we experts in such matters? These are elected governments at the states and the Centre, having a mandate to govern. We are not getting into the issues of financial support or inadequacy of funds …We are not experts and don’t intend to interfere without knowing what it is all about. We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom.” What better advice to follow than one’s own!

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