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“Beg, Borrow, Steal but Provide Oxygen”

A division bench constituted to take up matters related to Covid-19 has for the last two months been industriously and on a daily basis trying to ensure that citizens are saved at any cost.

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High Courts perform an intrinsic role as appellate courts and as courts of first instance in entertaining writ petitions under Article 226. They are often the first point of contact for citizens whose fundamental rights have been violated and are constantly in touch with ground realities in their jurisdictions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the High Court of Delhi has shown commendable foresight in managing the public health crisis.

Two judges of the High Court, Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Rekha Palli, pulled up the central and the Delhi governments for abdicating their duties to citizens and stood as the true custodian of the rights of the people of Delhi. This division bench was constituted to take up matters related to Covid-19 and for the last two months has been industriously and on a daily basis trying to ensure that citizens are saved at any cost. There have been instances where they have been filled with anguish over the grim reality being faced by Delhi’s citizens.

Following are some instances where this division bench of the Delhi High Court pulled no punches in dealing with the state and central government for not doing their job properly:

March 4: The Delhi High Court asked the centre to explain the rationale behind keeping strict control over the class of persons who can be vaccinated as under the present system, those above 60 years or with comorbidities can receive it.

The Court said the two institutes which had developed the vaccines—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Bio­tech—have more capacity to provide the vaccines but it seems that their full capacity is not being exploited. “We are not utilising it fully. We are either donating it to foreign countries or selling it to them and are not vaccinating our own people. So there has to be that sense of responsibility and urgency,” a bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said.

April 20: “It is a complete failure of the state,” the Delhi High Court said as a group of lawyers, including Bar Council of Delhi chairman Ramesh Gupta, sought medical facilities for advocates suffering from Covid-19. Lawyers urged the judges to come to their rescue and help them as they were not getting medical treatment. Again, the bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said they understood the pain which lawyers were undergoing and termed the situation as a failure of the state.

“We understand your pain. We are going through the same. This surge of COVID has such a huge number… nobody could have imagined that this will attack us in this way… Finances are not the issue here. The problem is infrastructure….

The problem is we don’t have doctors, nurses, attendants, oxygen and medicines. It is a complete failure of the state,” the bench said.

April 20: The same bench said that sufficient oxygen was not being supplied to Covid-19 patients in Delhi and asked the centre if it can be diverted from industries which can wait for now. “Industries can wait. Patients cannot. Human lives are at stake,” Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said. The direction came during the hearing of a disposed of petition related to Covid-19 tests. The Court also noted that the virus has raised its “ugly head” once again and the pandemic was raging with much greater intensity and “it is evident that the healthcare infrastructure is at the stage of imminent collapse”.

April 21: The bench directed the centre to provide oxygen by whatever means to hospitals in the national capital which are facing its scarcity. “Why is the Centre not waking up to the gravity of the situation? We are shocked and dismayed at hospitals running out of oxygen but steel plants are running,” the High Court said.

April 24: The High Court sent out a stern warning that if any official at the central, state or local administration was obstructing the collection or supply of oxygen, then “we will hang that man”. This observation was made by the same judges during the hearing of a petition by Maharaja Agrasen Hospital over shortage of oxygen. The Court told the Delhi government to give them one instance of a man who was obstructing oxygen supply and said, “we will hang that man”, “we will not spare anyone”.

May 5: The High Court came down hard on the centre over oxygen supply to the national capital. It asked why contempt action should not be taken for non-compliance of its order on May 1 and the Supreme Court’s order. “It has been brought to our notice that Delhi has not received 700 MT oxygen inspite of Supreme court order. Even earlier quantity of 490 MT was not even delivered,” Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli observed.

Saying that the Supreme Court was assured by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that Delhi would not suffer, the High Court said that this assurance had not been fulfilled as “small and large nursing homes and individuals are running to us”. On shortage of oxygen in Delhi, the High Court told the centre: “you can put your head in sand like ostrich, we will not”.

“We reject the submission that Delhi govt is not entitled to receive 700 MT per day in light of existing infrastructure. It pains us that the aspect of supply of oxygen should be viewed in the way is done by centre. The situation has come to this that hospitals have had to reduce the number of beds,” the Court said. The Delhi High Court on May 1 had directed the centre to supply 490 metric tonnes of allocated oxygen to Delhi or face contempt.

The Court took note of eight deaths in Batra Hospital due to lack of oxygen supply and told the government “enough is enough”. “Do you mean we will shut our eyes to the people dying in Delhi,” it asked the centre. “We mean business. Water has gone above the head,” it said and declined to defer its order. The bench said the government had made an allocation of oxygen to Delhi and should fulfil it.

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Asking why contempt action should not be initiated against it for not complying with judicial orders on oxygen supply to the Capital, the bench told the centre that it might choose to “dig its head like an ostrich in the sand”, but the Court will not. Noting that people are dying, the Court asked the government: “Are you living in ivory towers?”

As judges of a constitutional court, these two Justices were entrusted with protecting the life and liberty of citizens. While their remarks may seem harsh, this was the only way to make governments accountable for their abdication of duty.

By Abhinav Verma and India Legal News Service

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