State can’t term economic decline due to pandemic a ‘public emergency’: Supreme Court

File photo for representation.   | Photo Credit: M. Karunakaran

The State cannot declare the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic a “public emergency”to curtail the rights of people, the Supreme Court said on Thursday.

The pandemic had not resulted in an ‘internal disturbance’ of a nature that posed a ‘grave emergency’ whereby the security of India was threatened, it said.

A Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed that the sweeping powers of the State to declare a public emergency could only be wielded in case of “threat to the security of India or a part of the territory must be caused by war, external aggression or an internal disturbance”.

In a 41-page judgment, Justice Chandrachud observed: “We find that the economic slowdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic does not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of the State...Unless the threshold of an economic hardship is so extreme that it leads to disruption of public order and threatens the security of India or of a part of its territory, recourse cannot be taken to such emergency powers which are to be used sparingly under the law”.

Gujarat notifications

The verdict dealt with blanket notifications issued by the Gujarat government denying factory workers overtime wages during the lockdown period from April to July. It did this by invoking its powers of declaring a public emergency under Section 5 of the Factories Act. The trade unions appealed to the Supreme Court for relief.

Justice Chandrachud wrote it was “ironical” that a welfare State was exploiting workers when their bargaining powers were at the feeblest. Instead of protecting workers at a time of migrant exodus and panic, it was making their condition even more onerous.

“The State cannot permit workers to be exploited in a manner that renders the hard-won protections of the Factories Act, 1948 illusory and the constitutional promise of social and economic democracy into paper-tigers”, the order said.

The apex court agreed that the pandemic had put a great strain on the economy. But the Centre had taken steps under the Disaster Management Act. The Centre and the States have to work together to resolve issues. But the economic hardship had not affected the security of India. Neither had its peace or integrity been disturbed to declare a public emergency, it said.

Emergency powers’ use

The emergency powers under Article 352 of the Constitution had been only used thrice before. During the Chinese aggression in 1962, when hostilities broke out with Pakistan in 1971 and in 1975 when the Indira Gandhi government declared that a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by ‘internal disturbance’.”

The court said the post Emergency days saw the enactment of the 44th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandated that “internal disturbance” should reach the stage of “armed rebellion” threatening national security in order to declare a state of public emergency.

The sharp economic decline posed no such threat, the court concluded. It used its extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution to direct the payment of overtime wages to all eligible factory workers.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 10:23:24 PM |

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