While lockdowns may or may not be necessary depending on local situations and the threat of community spread of the virus, life must go on in a civilised manner. The measure restricting freedom of movement and social intercourse must be proportionate to the object sought to be achieved and must be demonstrably efficacious. Senior Advocate Mohan V Katarki kicks a debate on the rights of people in the time of Covid-19 pandemic. Readers are encouraged to send in their views for discussion.
THE world is overtaken by the coronavirus and its resulting infection of Covid-19 has killed thousands already and has been threatening to kill many more until the vaccine is invented or herd immunity is attained. However, achieving either of them is a long process of over 18 months. Mathematical modelling does not seem to offer hope for a receding of the pandemic till the end of 2021. Therefore, if the citizens have to live with Covid-19 pandemic for a long time to come, it is necessary to define what are the basic rights of citizens during the pandemic.
The bureaucracy of central and state governments in India have been fire fighting the pandemic with dedicated health workers on the ground. However, the fallout of Covid-19 pandemic is far more serious and goes beyond the issue of public health. The continued lockdown has thrown about 120 million out of a job triggering migration unseen before while workers attempt to walk home even if it means walking hundreds of kilometres. Playful School children are compelled to stay home even while they yearn to be out in the open.
Young people fit to work are getting bored of a monotonous life. The elderly are literally locked up in the home as being at high risk of being infected. These tectonic social changes have come without much prior intimation and have thrown society in quandary. The mode of communication is through the air, the disease is highly infectious. People who are asymptomatic can be carriers of infection without knowing it.
The identification of some of the vital interests of citizens which qualify as rights traceable to Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India becomes imminently necessary in these circumstances. These socio-economic rights under Article 21 are positive rights casting affirmative duty or responsibilities on the government to realise them by various schemes or programmes with or without the guidance of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) or the Disaster Management Authority.
The rights-based approach to development or relief measures has been recognised for more than decades and must now be used to deal with life in the pandemic. Such an approach would give clarity to citizens about their rights, crystallise the responsibilities of the Government and ensure transparency in governance. Any Government, absent defined rights and responsibilities, is an unaccountable government. It treats relief measures as a charity to the public, which is the antithesis of equality and liberty. Which are these vital interests which may qualify as a Charter of Citizens Rights in the time of COVID pandemic? Any list cannot be exhaustive. But, those identified below may presently address the grievances of citizens:
In Re- Right against continued Lockdown: The foremost right of citizens is the right against continued lockdown. Citizens cannot be quarantined at home unless it is absolutely necessary. It is needless to mention that quarantining restricts the freedom of movement. Besides, it has serious repercussions on the economy and education of children and collegiate students. Hence, lockdown cannot be continued endlessly.
In Re- Right to Social Distancing: This right to physical distancing is absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The Coronavirus is highly infectious and transmits from one person to another faster than words of mouth. Scientific study has concluded that particles thrown out by a sneezing person may even travel up to 12 feet. Thus, social distancing must be enforced by the government by penal provisions where necessary.
In Re- Right against Hunger: India is an underdeveloped country having about 18% of its population living below poverty line (BPL). The fall out Covid-19 Pandemic has been the massive unemployment. It’s reported that India’s unemployment rate surged to 27.11% in the first week of May from 6.74% in the middle of March 15, as per the data of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). About 120 million workings in informal sectors reportedly have lost their jobs or sitting at home without work and wages. Despite advisory of the government to pay wages during the furlough, the widespread allegation is that full wages are not paid. In coming weeks, even part payments may dry up. This is bound to drive unemployed into starvation. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon the government to prevent them and their families from hunger and starvation by supplying free food until the normalcy is restored. At every possible corner of the cities, towns and villages, a kitchen should be started by the government to provide two meals in a day and milk for those who are in the BPL list.
In Re, Right to Treatment: The testing, treatment and vaccination are an important aspect of fighting Covid-19 pandemic, though there is no immediate drug or vaccine available. The poor cannot afford to pay for hospitalisation. It is undoubtedly the responsibility of the Government to provide free testing, medicine, vaccine and facility of hospitalisation if necessary for people in the BPL list.
In Re: Right to Online Education: Schools and Colleges have been closed. Even if lockdown is lifted, it is not really possible to open the schools and colleges because of the requirement of social distancing norms. If this threat of COVID-19 pandemic goes on for even six months, children and students may lose their academic year. Hence, it is necessary that steps be taken by the government to start online classes to the extent possible to reduce crowding in schools and colleges.
In addition to the above five rights, there are many subsidiary rights. These are right to walk in parks, right to receive, at least, part payments from Government against approved bills, right to travel to meet parents or family, etc. Governments need to act and implement schemes to realise these rights on a war footing and protects these Charter of Rights against Covid-19 Pandemic.
[Mohan Katarki is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India and can be reached at [email protected]]