Char Dham Yatra Can’t Be Permitted, To Be Another Hotbed as Kumbh for the Spread of COVID-19: Uttarakhand High Court 

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Excerpt 

On Tuesday, the Uttarakhand High court by observing that all over the world, and within the country, people have expressed their concern with the ongoing Kumbh Mela and its impact on the spread of COVID-19, issued a slew of directions regarding COVID-19 management in the State of Uttarakhand. Because of this, the Court observed that the opening of the Char Dhams could not be permitted to become another hotbed for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the Court asked the State to be more vigilant, and ever ready to increase the number of testing throughout the State, in general, and in bigger cities of the State to gauge the extent of positivity in the State.

Petitioner’s Submission 

In the present case, 5 PILS were filed concerning the present scenario of Uttarakhand to deal with COVID-19. Firstly, Mr. Om Prakash, the Learned Chief Secretary, and Mr. Amit Negi, the Learned Secretary, Medical Health and Family Welfare, Government of Uttarakhand informed the Court about the steps being taken by the State Government in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic which had started spreading its tentacles throughout the State. 

Further, Mr. Shiv Bhatt, the Learned Counsel for the Petitioner in Writ Petition (PIL) No.58 of 2020, submitted that, as per the news item published in Dainik Jagran, on 19.04.2021, the increase in the number of COVID-19 positive cases has jumped from 3.05% to 13.54% within twelve days. Furthermore, according to the media report, the anti-viral injection called ‘Remdesivir’ was no longer available in the State. Moreover, the testing of the pandemic was carried out in the State on the lower side. Further, it was contended that as per the information issued by the State Government, there are three types of hospitals that have been earmarked for COVID-19 treatment i.e., 5 Dedicated COVID-19 Hospitals; Dedicated COVID-19 Health Care Centres available in only 12 districts; and 314 Dedicated COVID-19 Centres spread throughout the State. 

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Further, Mr. Dushyant Mainali, the Learned Counsel for the Petitioner in Writ Petition (PIL) No.50 of 2020, highlighted some of the lacunae in the Health Care System prevailing in the State. According to the Learned Counsel, on 16.04.2021, the Union Health Ministry had advised that COVID-19 dedicated facilities need to be set up which should be equipped with “all supportive and ancillary services in the hospital”. Further, despite the said advice of the Union Health Ministry, there was a shortage of ICU beds and Non-ICU beds in the State. Even though the Central Government had advised that hospitals being run by CPSUs should be utilized, no such step has been taken by the State Government to utilize the hospitals being run by the CPSUs.

 

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Furthermore, there was a huge demand for anti-viral injection called ‘Remdesivir’ for the seriously affected COVID-19 patients. Also, there was a lack of stock of the said anti-viral injection. Besides this, the Learned Counsel submitted that the process of COVID-19 detection was running at a slow pace. This slow pace is because of the lack of authorized laboratories which can carry out these tests. Moreover, if the test was taken then the test results are unknown for days on end. But such uncertainty further plays havoc not just with the treatment of the patient, but more importantly, endangers the life of the patient. 

Subsequently, the Learned Counsel pointed out the inefficiency of the Golden Card Scheme. 

It was alleged that the benefit of the said Scheme is not being extended by the private hospitals to such cardholders. Because of which people are denied easy accessibility to CT scan machines. Thus, the diagnosis of the virus is far too little.

Further, the Learned Counsel highlighted the breach of the order of the Government dated 2.09.2021 regarding the rates chargeable by the private hospitals for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Lastly, the Learned Counsel submitted that ‘Real-Time Data’ concerning the availability of the number of beds in the hospital, about the number of clinics authorized to carry out the test, was not available to the people on the internet. 

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Furthermore, Mr. Piyush Garg, the Learned Counsel for the Petitioner in Writ Petition (PIL) No.51 of 2020, drew the attention of the Court to the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar which is scheduled to end on 30.04.2021. The Learned Counsel submitted that, although the State Government claimed that it would like to break the chain of infection of COVID-19, yet it is permitting large gatherings in the Kumbh Mela. And thereby the State Government was not taking any strict action concerning the ongoing Kumbh Mela.

He further submitted that, soon, in the third week of May 2021, the temples of Char Dham, namely Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath, would open their doors for receiving the pilgrims at their respective places. According to the Learned Counsel, the moment the doors of these holy temples are open, a large number of pilgrims will wind their way to these holy temples. Yet, the State Government has not come up with an SOP, or any concrete plans for regulating, or controlling the number of pilgrims who would be allowed to reach these holy temples, and the number of persons who would be permitted to gather at these temples. Therefore, according to the Learned Counsel, like the Kumbh Mela, even these holy temples will prove to be the next hotbeds for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Petitioner’s prayers 

Learned Counsel for the Petitioner in Writ Petition (PIL) No.50 of 2020, Mr. Dushyant Mainali urged that by considering the huge demand of anti-viral injection called ‘Remdesivir’ for the seriously affected COVID-19 patient and the lack of stock of the same, the State Government should clarify the steps it is taking for stocking the sufficient number of such anti-viral injection for the use of the people in the State. Further, the Learned Counsel urged that the number of authorized laboratories should be increased in the State. Because at present, uncertainty is present in the COVID-19 detection tests which further endangers the life of the patients. Furthermore,  the State Government should be directed to place the essential information in its media bulletin as such information would permit the people to decide about the place where they would like to be tested, and the hospital that they would like to have the patient treated. Further, it was pleaded to take strict action towards the hospitals that were breaching the order regarding the rates fixed for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Furthermore, the Learned Counsel, Mr. Piyush Garg pleaded that the State Government should be asked to declare its SOP concerning the forthcoming opening of the doors of the Char Dhams in the State. The Counsel made this pleading based on the increase in the rate positivity in the ongoing Kumbh Mela. The Counsel further pleaded that if proper steps are not taken then like the Kumbh Mela, even the Char Dhams will prove to be the next hotbeds for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Court’s observations 

After hearing the contentions of the Learned Chief Secretary, the Learned Secretary, Medical Health and Family Welfare, and the Learned counsel for the parties. The Court observed that it is an open secret that India has emerged as the leading country facing the fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic. According to the media reports, the increase in positivity rate had doubled from last year. Moreover, all over the world and within the country, people are worried about the ongoing Kumbh Mela and its impact on the spread of COVID-19. Hence, the States like Maharashtra and Karnataka had already announced that those who would be returning from the Kumbh Mela would be required to undergo quarantine for ten days.

Underling that a large extent of the State was covered by mountains, and the fact that the villages and hamlets were spread at the mountain tops, the State Government was to seriously consider the use of ‘mobile vans’ which can penetrate the heartland and into the interior parts of the State for carrying out the test.

Taking into account the positivity rate, the Court observed, “If this trend continues for another three to four months, not only Uttarakhand, but even the nation, will hit its peak after three to four months. The rough estimate is that by the end of July 2021 or beginning of August 2021, six lakhs people may be adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic within the State.” Thus, the court remarked that the instant issue and the future concern was the level of preparedness of the State to fight the war which has just begun with COVID-19.

Further, it is asserted that both the Central Government and the ICMR have repeatedly been advising the State to increase the number of testing within the population. Although Mr. Amit Negi, the Learned Secretary, Medical Health and Family Welfare, justified that the track record of Uttarakhand was far better than the other States, and far above the rate prescribed by the ICMR, it was no reason to rest on our oars. Moreover, the percentage prescribed by the ICMR was the minimum percentage that was required to be done. But there was no need to stop only at the minimum percentage. Because there was a rapid increase in positivity because it had already doubled in one month, the State needed to be over vigilant, and ever ready to increase the number of testing throughout the State, in general, and in bigger cities of the State, such as Dehradun, Haridwar, and Haldwani, in particular, to gauge the extent of positivity in the State. Further, the Court observed the breach of order regarding the rates for treating COVID-19 patients. The Court discouraged it and concluded that if any private hospital is found, over-charging the COVID-19 patients, and is violating the Government Order dated 02.09.2020, then strict action against the erring hospitals under law shall be taken.

Further, the Court took up the contention of Mr. Piyush Garg, the Learned Counsel for the Petitioner in Writ Petition (PIL) No.51 of 2020, which was directed towards the ongoing Kumbh Mela. Responding to this, the Court directed the State Government to immediately issue an SOP concerning the opening of Char Dhams. Further, this SOP must indicate the procedure for registration of the pilgrims, the number of pilgrims allowed to travel to the respective Dham, the accommodation which would be available for the pilgrims, the number of pilgrims allowed to enter each temple at the Dham. Moreover, the State Government shall ensure that the SOP issued by the Central Government and the SOP issued by the State Government are strictly complied with by the pilgrims. For, the opening of the Char Dhams cannot be permitted to become another hotbed for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Court’s decision 

After considering the figures and the available resources to combat the menace of the Pandemic, COVID-19, the Court directed the State to be over vigilant, and ever ready to increase the number of testing throughout the State, in general, and in bigger cities of the State to gauge the extent of positivity in the State. Further directed the State to increase the use of other kits, besides the Rapid Antigen Kit, or the RT PCR tests, increase the number of Dedicated COVID-19 Hospitals, increase the number of COVID-19 Health Care Centres, to endeavor to increase the CT scan machines available in the State, Ensure that the PPE kits and other protective gears, such as gloves, masks, and sanitizer are provided to all the medical staff, especially to the Doctors, Nurses, Ward boys to look after the COVID-19 patients, to increase the number of ICUs, increase in the number of beds, and increase in the availability of protective gears such as PPE kits, masks, gloves, and the number of sanitizers available in the major Government Hospitals of the State. Further, the State Government was directed to procure and distribute a sufficient number of antiviral injections, namely ‘Remdesivir’, on war footing throughout the State. Besides this, the State was directed to Immediately issue an SOP concerning the opening of Char Dhams. The matter was listed for further hearing on 10th May 2021.

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