The Supreme Court on Monday held that all the Indian citizens who are stranded in different Countries due to the coronavirus outbreak and the nationwide lockdown imposed thereafter should “stay where they are”, as it will not be feasible to selectively evacuate those citizens who want to return to India.
A three- judge Bench comprising of Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, Justice L. Nageswara Rao & Justice MM Shatanagoudar observed this while hearing a batch of petitions filed for evacuation of Indian citizens who are stranded in different parts of the world due to COVID-19 outbreak.
The petition seeking the urgent evacuation of Indian students stranded in the United Kingdom amid the global pandemic was filed by Advocate MadhuriaMridul. These students, one of whom was petitioner’s family could not return to India as all inbound international flights had been stoppedfrom March 22 by the government of India, and the students, who had tickets to travel back to India, were stranded at the UK airports.
The petitioner in her plea has argued that India is the only country to have imposed an embargo on the return of its own citizens, while the other countries were atleast trying to bring their citizens back from other countries, and such an act of restricting their entry to India is violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. The Court in the last hearing had directed Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to get instructions and file the Centre’s response.
The Centre filed its affidavit giving details of the steps taken by the concerned authorities including the Indian High Commission at London to assist the Indians there.
Important Steps taken by High Commission of India in UK :
- Working with organizations, community support groups and individuals across UK to reach and assist the as many Indian citizens as possible.
- Indian citizens have been requested to follow the advice of National Health Service (NHS) of UK and stay connected with the High Commission through social media platforms, emails and helplines
- Emergency consultation and treatment facility made available under NHS free of cost for international students including Indian students.
- Operation of a ‘non-eviction’ policy ,particularly for international students who may not be able to return home due to travel restrictions.
- For Indian citizens who were left stranded during transit through the UK when their onward flights to India were cancelled accommodation is being provided in hotels by their respective airlines.
- Extension of visas by UK Government till 31st May 2020 and issuance of necessary guidelines.
Important steps of Action by Indian Government :
- Formation of a COVID-19 Cell in Ministry of External Affairs to ensure greater access and precision of information and creation of sub-groups dealing with different regions of the world.
- Indian community/nationals abroad are being mobilized by the High Commissions/Embassies/Posts of India to help fellow Indians in distress in that country
- Assistance being provided to Indian nationals abroad by Nodal officers who have been identified and designated at each Mission/Post
- Ensuring functioning of 24*7 helpline numbers and emails.
Centre’s Reasoning as to why Evacuation Is not Reasonable:
- Some of these countries have reported a very large number of cases including deaths, putting passengers from these countries particularly at higher risk of infection. Travel back of such passengers to different regions of India poses a grave risk to the country of a population of over 1.3 billion.
- The present situation of the corona virus outbreak in India and the available limited resources, it is not feasible to selectively evacuate Indian citizens from abroad when a large number of them from a number of countries want to return back due to various reasons.
- The Government needs to focus on containing the further spread of the virus within India and allowing health machinery to focus on domestic containment effectively.
Writ Petitions Seeking of Indian Citizens Disposed of BY Indian High Courts:
- A writ petition, ShehlaSaira v. Union of India,was filed before Delhi High Court for evacuation of Indian students studying in Kazakhstan who were left stranded in Almaty after the imposition of travel restrictions Indian Government, and the same was disposed of after MEA informed the Court about the efforts and steps being undertaken to assist the Indians abroad.
- A writ petition, Gaurav Kumar Bansal v. UOI, was filed before Delhi High Court for evacuation and providing assistance to Indian students stranded in Bangladesh, particularly studying in Medical colleges of Bangladesh, which was disposed of after examining the status report of MEA and acknowledging the steps undertaken.
- A writ petition, Ramesh Chander Goyal v. Union of India, was filed before Delhi High Court to challenge the circular of DGCA imposing travel restrictions on international flights to India by GoI and for evacuation of petitioner’s son from Scotland, which was disposed of after MEA had taken all necessary steps and given all necessary information for the assistance of the Petitioner’s son.
- A writ petition, Azra Usmail v. UT of J&K, was filed before Jammu and Kashmir High Court to deal with different issues related to COVID-19 in the UT of J&K. The Court had directed MEA to provide assistance to Indians in New York and to look into the aspect of evacuation of Indians from New York.
The petitions filed across different High courts and Supreme Court of India present dual challenge before the Government as it has a duty to rescue its citizens stranded in foreign countries as well as at the same time to protect its citizens from COVID-19. it remains to be seen that how the Government of India strikes a balance between the two challenges.