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Misuse of PILs Continues Even in Times of Pandemics

Public interest litigation, Prashant Bhushan Harsh Mander NGO time Solicitor General Supreme Court fine government

India has been under lockdown for the past 3 weeks and will continue to do so till 3rd of May thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. While all offices and industries have been shut down, one industry continues to operate unabated, and is actually putting up more hurdles in tackling the Coronavirus pandemic. That industry is none other than the “Public Interest Litigation (PIL) industry”.

When the entire country has gone all out to combat this global pandemic, few so called activists continue unabated to file one PIL after another purely for publicity purposes, and are keen on putting up more roadblocks and hurdles in India’s fight against the pandemic.

While the Supreme Court has started hearing cases of importance via videoconferencing to keep the wheels of justice moving, these activists are filing frivolous petitions intentionally questioning every move of the government and expert bodies like ICM,R wasting the courts’ time even in time of pandemic.

Free Testing by Private Labs Clarified by Supreme Court

Last week in response to a petition filed by an advocate challenging the notification issued by ICMR allowing private labs to charge up to ₹4,500 for a test. The Supreme Court in response directed that all private labs must test free for all citizens. The Supreme Court also observed that the government can later come up with mechanism to reimburse the private labs.

This order of Supreme Court was immediately called as “good intention gone awry” by medical experts and business leaders. In fact, Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw called the Supreme Court’s order as “impractical to implement” and urged the apex court to reconsider its decision.

The experts opined that free testing for coronavirus places an unfair financial burden on medical firms and could cause a reduction in testing. The concern is that private medical firms, like many businesses in India are struggling financially, and could go under if they tested for free without financial assistance. They also noted that the tests were being done at a cost fixed by ICMR and thus there was no scope for profiteering here.

The Indian government had decided to rope in private labs to test so that the number of tests conducted could be scaled up rapidly. Anyway, all COVID-19 tests conducted at government labs are free for all and those who could pay for tests can certainly go and pay at private labs, thus lessening the burden on government labs which can focus on providing free tests for economically weaker section.

The Union Government led by PM Modi went further and announced that under Ayushman Bharat, all beneficiaries can be tested and treated free of cost at all empaneled hospitals and private labs thus covering testing of 50 crore Indians citizens at one stroke.

ICMR also filed a response stating that Supreme Court’s order may actually work to the detriment of the intention of scaling up testing in association with private labs. ICMR highlighted that the decision to involve private labs in the process of testing was taken after extensive deliberation with the national task force on all aspects, and said that the government is bound to prioritise resources in public interest.

Noting these submissions, the Supreme Court revised its order to note that testing is free only for those covered under Ayushman Bharat as already directed by the government, and for any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the government for free testing for COVID-19. It also stated that private labs can continue to charge people Rs 4,500 as fixed by ICMR.

Frivolous PIL Against PM CARES Fund

The same day, the Supreme Court also immediately dismissed a PIL filed by a serial PIL lawyer, M L Sharma against the PM CARES fund. Calling the PIL misconceived, the Supreme Court dismissed it in a hearing conducted through video conferencing.

In addition, the Supreme Court also said the cost of the case will be imposed on the petitioner for filing this frivolous petition and warned him of a fine.

Stranded Indians Abroad

It is well known that India has rescued its stranded citizens from abroad promptly with vigor. More than 1,000 students, pilgrims and travelers from China, Iran, Italy and Japan have been brought home. The Indian government has also gone further and rescued citizens of neighboring countries stranded in hotspots. India, through its embassies and high commissions, has also helped any more citizens stranded abroad and extended maximum help possible to them

In a petition filed to bring all stranded Indian citizens abroad in Supreme Court, the Union Government observed that the severe risk posed by arrivals from an increasing number of countries affected by COVID-19 is something that the government is seeking to minimize, and that the approach of the government has, therefore, been to advise the Indian nationals to stay put where they are. This is in line with government’s approach to contain the further spread of the virus within India, and allowing the health machinery to focus on domestic containment effectively.

In response, the Supreme Court also observed that those still abroad must listen to union government and stay where they were.

Plea on Migrant workers

Responding once again to another PIL filed by ‘activist’ Harsh Mander on the payment of salary and other benefits to migrant labourers, the Supreme Court noted that government is paying due attention to their adversities, and added that If Supreme Court allows everything that the petitioner asks in his petition, we will end up running the government.

The Supreme Court also praised government efforts in providing food and shelter to lakhs of migrants fleeing the cities to their homes in the hinterland amid a national lockdown.

Another petition filed by “activist” Swami Agnivesh on the plight of migrant workers was also dismissed by the Supreme Court after recording the statement of the Solicitor General that appropriate steps are being taken to address the prayers in the petition.

Misuse of PIL For Publicity and Political Gains

Supreme Court of India had observed in 2017 in a case that it was high time the concept of PILs was revisited, since court proceedings were being abused in the name of PIL for political gains and publicity.

In 2016, Prashant Bhushan and his NGO CPIL, known for filing multitude of PILs, had come under the scanner of the Supreme Court for filing too many PILs, and voiced concerns that by voicing concern rivaling commercial litigants could be used by the NGO as an instrument to settle personal scores.

While PILs were initiated in India as a tool to empower the poor and take up the causes of those who cannot directly knock on the doors of Supreme Court, this process has been hijacked by a cozy group of activists whose job has become to file on PIL after another.

As the Solicitor General asserted in the Supreme Court, these “PIL shops” must be closed down. He added that genuinely public-spirited people are helping people on the ground and that sitting in AC rooms and filing PILs does not help.

Filing so many frivolous PIL’s even during time of crisis has not only put more roadblocks for tackling COVID-19 and caused more confusion; it is also preventing the truly poor and downtrodden to get their voices heard in the Supreme Court.