Amid Covid, fundamental right to health includes affordable treatment: In December, the Supreme Court said it is a war against Covid-19, which needs government-public partnership to make Covid treatment affordable for the common people. The top court emphasised that fundamental right to health includes affordable treatment. “Right to health is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Right to health includes affordable treatment. Therefore, it is the duty upon the State to make provisions for affordable treatment and more and more provisions in the hospitals to be run by the State and/or local administration are made”, said a three-judge bench.
Permanent Commission for women in armed forces: In the beginning of the year, the Supreme Court delivered a strong blow at gender stereotype, as it granted permanent commission (PC) to women officers in army, navy and air force. The top court junked the Centre’s argument that women were “physiologically weak” to be given PC and command appointments, and asked the government to look beyond the deeply entrenched gender stereotype, which positions man as a dominant being and casts a notion for women as caretakers. The series of rulings, beginning in February, quashed the 2019 circular, which foreclosed women officers’ chances to apply for PCs. The top court said to cast aspersions on women’s abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army – men and women – who serve as equal citizens in a common mission. The top court directed the Centre to give PC to serving women officers, who completed 14 years in service along with pensionary benefits to those who retired on account of not being granted the commission. The top court said for command assignments women cannot be excluded completely and there should be case-by-case basis consideration. The top court said the delay in granting PC has caused “irreparable prejudice to the women officers”, and directed the Centre to grant permanent commission to women officers in the Army within three months.
Right to access to the internet equivalent to a fundamental right: In January, the Supreme Court said the right to access the Internet is a fundamental right, under Article 19 of the Constitution, by extension. The apex court observed that it is essential to distinguish between the internet as a tool and the freedom of expression through the internet. The court directed the Jammu and Kashmir administration to immediately restore internet services connected with access to government websites, localised/limited e-banking facilities, hospitals services and other essential services. The ruling came on the petitions challenging the telecommunication blackout in the region, which followed the revocation of the Article 370. The top court said non-recognition of technology within the sphere of law is only a disservice to the inevitable. In this light, the importance of the internet cannot be underestimated, as from morning to night we are encapsulated within the cyberspace and our most basic activities are enabled by the use of internet, observed the court. However, the judgement did not mention any time-frame to restore internet services to other sectors and for the people in the region. The apex court observed that none of the counsels, involved in the matter, have argued for declaring the right to access the internet as a fundamental right and therefore we are not expressing any view on the same. “We are confining ourselves to declaring that the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and the right to carry on any trade or business under 19(1)(g), using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected”, said the court.
SC asks Parliament to ponder over powers of the Speaker: In January, the Supreme Court asked the Parliament to ponder over the powers granted to the Legislative Assembly Speaker, regarding the disqualification of MLAs, under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. The Supreme Court asked the Parliament to “seriously consider” establishing a permanent tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court, or some other outside independent mechanism, to examine disputes concerning disqualification of MPs and MLAs. The top court ruling came on an appeal by a Congress MLA from Manipur, who challenged the delay by the Speaker in deciding a disqualification petition against another MLA who won on a Congress ticket but later switched to the BJP. The court emphasised that it is essential for the Speaker to decide on the matter within a reasonable time period, and recommended the disqualification petitions should be decided within three months.
SC takes suo moto cognizance of the migrant crisis during the Covid-19 lockdown
The Supreme Court initially exercised restraint in passing a strong order and expressed satisfaction at the steps taken by the government in the migrant workers’ matter. However, it shook off the hesitation and in May began hearing on its own on various issues connected with the problems faced by migrant workers, who began walking back on foot to their native places or were left stranded in different parts of country due the lockdown to contain the pandemic.
The top court conducted a series of hearings in the matter, where it heard detailed submissions by the Centre and state governments, and directed all migrant workers willing to return to their native places must be transported within a fortnight. The court ordered the state governments and Union Territories to register the migrant workers who have returned home – at the district and block levels – and provide employment opportunities to them. Since then, the top court has taken suo moto cognisance in important matters: proper treatment of Covid-19 patients and dignified handling of dead bodies in the hospitals; and spread of the infection in the child protection homes.