New Delhi: In his first interview where he explains why he has moved a PIL in the Supreme Court, accusing the government of “gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in India” and asking the apex court to use its power under Article 32 and appoint an independent inquiry commission headed by a retired judge of the court, Prashant Bhushan has, in fact, stepped-up and sharpened his criticism of the government.
He says the government’s handling is “gross mismanagement at many levels. It’s so serious and so negligent it borders on the criminal”. He said the government’s response is “totally irresponsible”.
In a 33-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, one of India’s foremost and best known human rights lawyers, explained the reasons why he believes the government is guilty of “gross mismanagement”.
First, he said, despite receiving WHO alerts in early January the government “failed to nip the problem in the bud by conducting effective screening and surveillance of international passengers coming into India as well as carrying out a public awareness campaign”.
When The Wire pointed out to him that on April 14, the Prime Minister had said: “Long before we had even one single case of Corona, India had started screening travellers coming from Corona effected countries at airports,” Bhushan said “he is lying”.
A moment later he called the Prime Minister “a liar”. Bhushan corrected himself then and said the Prime Minister “may be right in a technical sense”. Giving further details, the senior lawyer said no universal screening was being done till sometime in March.
An RTI reply that he has received has established that between January 15 and March 18 only 19% of incoming passengers were screened at airports. This is his basis for saying the PM is only correct in a technical sense.
Bhushan questioned why the ‘Namaste Trump’ event was permitted to take place on February 24, when 20 days earlier on February 4, the National Disaster Management Authority had issued guidelines to avoid mass gatherings, promote masks and the use of hand sanitizers. In ignoring these guidelines and permitting ‘Namaste Trump’, with over 1 lakh people, to go ahead, the government was guilty of gross mismanagement and negligence.
A second reason Bhushan gave for accusing the government of gross mismanagement is the fact the lockdown was announced on March 24, “without due consultation with experts or state governments”. Bhushan said that even the National Task Force, appointed by the government on March 18, was not consulted.
Speaking about the states, Bhushan told The Wire that the Cabinet Secretary on March 22/23 had consulted Chief Secretaries and they had agreed on a shut down in 75/80 districts/cities identified as hotspots. The prime minister unilaterally changed this 24 hours later into a nationwide lockdown, for which there was no consultation or agreement between the central government and the state governments.
The third reason Bhushan gave for accusing the government of gross mismanagement is the “inexplicable delay in scaling up the procurement of PPEs”. Dismissing the government’s claim that it has speedily and substantially ramped up the production of PPEs to the point where India is now reported to be making six lakh kits a day, Bhushan asked how the government can explain the many stories of doctors and other healthcare staff complaining about lack of PPEs.
He also quoted PPE manufacturers and their association who have said the government did not place orders till March 21. In other words, critical time was wasted by the government before decisions to order PPEs from domestic manufacturers were taken and communicated.
The fourth reason Bhushan cited for accusing the government of gross mishandling is the impact of the lockdown on jobs, livelihoods and the economy. He said the harshest lockdown in the world was declared with just four hour’s notice without “any advance planning or social security measures”. This, he added, badly affected the right to life of the affected Indian people and this is a right guaranteed by Article 21 of the constitution.
Bhushan said he was asking the Supreme Court to appoint an inquiry to bring out the proper facts and establish what the government did as well as what it did not do, when it did it, and how effectively it was done and what was the impact or consequence of that action. In other words, as he put it, the inquiry commission would produce a document that would be like a white paper establishing the facts.
Bhushan told The Wire that he was not asking the Supreme Court to trespass on and transgress on the jurisdiction of the executive and he hoped the Supreme Court would not reject his PIL on those grounds. Although in April, in a critique of the Court, the senior lawyer had said it has “surrendered its powers of judicial review of the government’s policies, directives and action” he was now acting in the hope the Supreme Court would change its position and correct itself.
As he said: “One lives in hope. One hopes the Supreme Court will correct itself … it has been failing but we hope it will live up to the expectations of the Indian people and its duty to protect the constitution”.
Bhushan also added: “The government needs to be exposed. The country needs to know the facts. We need an independent inquiry.” And then he added: “the Supreme Court needs to act. It may not have acted in the past but we live in hope”.
The above is a paraphrased precis of Prashant Bhushan’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Please see the full interview for accurate details.