The Supreme Court on Friday warned State governments and police against clamping down on the spread of information or calls for help through social media from citizens affected by COVID-19.
A Special Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat said any move by any State to punish citizens who take to the social media to seek help for oxygen cylinders, COVID-19 drugs, beds, hospitalisation, etc, amid a rampaging second wave would attract contempt of court action.
“We don’t want any clampdown of information. We will treat it as a contempt of court if such grievances is considered for action. Let a strong message go to all the States and DGPs of States. Clampdown of information is contrary to basic precepts,” Justice Chandrachud made a categorical statement in court.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the litigation was non-adversarial.
“As an officer of the court, I fully agree with what Your Lordships have said,” Mr. Mehta agreed.
Justice Chandrachud said free flow of information in the 1970 famine enabled the government to tackle problem effectively as compared to clampdown during the 1918 pandemic.
Justice Rao reminded the States that this was a time of great crisis. The Bench said empathy and action should be the rule of the day.
At one point, Justice Chandrachud questioned how the Centre intended to ensure registration for vaccines for illiterate people considering the fact that COWIN app registration was mandatory.
The Bench also asked how the Centre expected a sense of equity from the vaccine manufacturers.
Justice Bhat pointed out that manufacturers were charging ₹150 from the Centre while vaccines to the States were priced at ₹300.
“Why should we as a nation pay this? The price difference becomes ₹30 to 40,000 crore... AstraZeneca is providing vaccines at far lower price to the U.S. citizens then why should we be paying so much?” Justice Bhat asked.
The Bench asked why the Centre had not considered using powers under Section 92 of Patents Act for compulsory licensing of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The court asked why the Centre had not procured 100% of the vaccines and equitably distributed them across the country, but was instead leaving it to manufacturers. The court said the Centre could not possible enforce equity in vaccine distribution when it was itself buying only 50% doses.
Vaccine manufacturing was publicly funded and vaccines were public property, the court noted.
“Why cannot the government buy the entire doses of vaccines,” the court asked.
The Bench asked whether, now, one State would get priority access over another in getting the vaccines. The court asked why the government could not follow a national immunisation programme policy with respect to vaccines.
The court turned to the plight of medical workers, nurses and doctors. It said it was not enough to declare them ‘COVID Warriors’, what was being done for them on the ground.
“What is being done for shortage of medical staff? How are doctors being safeguarded and treated for COVID-19,” Justice Chandrachud asked the government.