The far-flung Coronavirus has had one of the most catastrophic and prolonged effects on our nation’s economy and has caused turmoil in every major industry. As soon as India was drastically hit by the pandemic, its citizens were required to comply with endless rules that even resulted in almost total restriction on their movement, a few cases being an exception. As some may argue that it was unconstitutional, The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 and The Disaster Management Act, 2005 gave a head start to the Centre and State to take necessary actions and precautions that seem necessary amidst a dangerous epidemic disease and are within the interest of its people as stated in section 2 and section 2A of The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897. Numerous sections of The Disaster Management Act, 2005 and The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897may further help us interpreting various decisions of the courts passed during and before the widespread disease.
Mandatory to Wear a Mask in your Private Car?
Due to significant spike in cases, the Central, as well as the State Governments, have been urging people to wear mask at all times. The authorities in Delhi being no exception, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) in an order on April 8 directed that “it has become imperative that in the larger public interest, wearing of the mask by any person who is moving in any public place is essential”. Further, in order to make sure that this order is not misinterpreted, the DDMA through a categorical order stated that it was mandatory for any person moving around in their personal or official vehicle to be wearing a mask. This created havoc within the public and many contentions were thus made. This order garnered the attention of the public in the case of Saurabh Sharma vs Sub-Divisional Magistrate, East & Ors.[i]
In the aforementioned case, a lawyer was charged a fine of Rs. 500 for not complying with the order as he was spotted not wearing a mask in his private vehicle. Later that year, the said lawyer approached the Delhi High Court on the same matter seeking relief a refund of the same amount along with Rs. 10 lakh as compensation. The petitioner argued that his vehicle was a private zone, he was travelling alone, and that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had clarified that no such guideline has been issued by the central government. However, the Ministry, during the hearing, submitted that ‘health’ was a state subject under the Constitution and the final word on the issue would be of the Delhi Government. The Delhi Government defended itself by responding to the arguments made by the petitioner and made it explicitly clear that a personal vehicle on a public road cannot say to be a private zone, rather, it is a public space. In order to add more substance and strengthen its defence, the said government cited a judgement by the Supreme Court in Satvinder Singh Saluja & Ors Vs. The State of Bihar.[ii]
The Case that Interpreted ‘Private Vehicle in Public Space’
Satvinder Singh Saluja & Ors Vs. State of Bihar
In the case of Satvinder Singh Saluja & Ors Vs. State of Bihar, the appellant along with his friends was travelling from Giridih to Patna and was subjected to a breath analyser test. They were found to have consumed alcohol. Subsequently, a case was registered against them under Section 53(a) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016. The aforesaid section provides for a penalty against whoever consumes liquor in a public place or an unauthorized place. The appellant moved the High Court and argued for the quashing of the charge sheet on the grounds that it was baseless as they were found drinking in their “private vehicle” and not in a public place. Regardless of this argument, the High Court dismissed their plea. The appellant finally moved to the Apex Court and raised similar contentions. The appellant persistently argued that that the vehicle they were travelling in could not be said to be a “public place” within the meaning of Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016. Furthermore, the appellant contended that while Section 2(54) of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 included“private vehicles” under the definition of a public place, the same provision was not in existence in the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016.
The Supreme Court dismissed these arguments by stating that as per Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016, “Public Place” means “any place to which public has access, whether as a matter of right or not and includes all places visited by the general public and also includes any open space”. In order to clear the ambiguity around this section, the court laid emphasis on the word “access”, further elucidating that any place to which the public has access, whether as a matter of right or not, is a public place. The court cited Black’s Law Dictionary to highlight the definition of the word “access” which means right, opportunity, or ability to enter, approach, pass to and from, or communicate with access to the courts.
Justice Bhushan said “When a private vehicle is passing through the public road it cannot be accepted that public has no access to it. It is true that the public may not have access to a private vehicle as a matter of right but definitely, the public has the opportunity to approach the private vehicle while it is on the public road. Hence, we are not able to accept the submission that the vehicle in which appellants are travelling is not covered by the definition of ‘public place’ as defined in Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016.” The bench of learned judges also stated that private conveyance will be included in the definition of public conveyance as per section 2(17A). The bench dismissing the second argument stated that the omission of public conveyance in section 2(17A) indicates that there is no need to distinguish between private conveyance and public conveyance.
Doctrine of Necessity
Circling back to the case of Saurabh Sharma vs Sub-Divisional Magistrate, East & Ors., Justice Prathiba M Singh observed that “a mask is like a Suraksha Kavach for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. It protects the person wearing it as also the person who is exposed…wearing of masks has been one measure that has saved millions of lives,”. Therefore, the court rightly ruled that a private car was indeed a public place in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Hence, in my opinion, this judgement and interpretation of the court have invoked the doctrine of necessity which states that “necessity knows no laws”. The doctrine of necessity is used to define a situation in which administrative actions by the administrative authority, which are designed to restore order, are found to be constitutional.
Accordingly, in the present case, it is believed that even if a person is driving alone in their car without a mask and was to be infected, had released droplets of virus-contaminated fluids inside the car, they could still end up infecting others who enter the car later. Therefore, the Delhi High Court by upholding the order of the DDMA has rightly interpreted “private vehicle” as a public place; taking into consideration that Delhi is a hotspot for the spread of the virus, the concerned authorities order can be justified as the spread of the virus not only puts the lives of Delhi citizens at risk but that of the entire nation. In the case of Election Commission of India v. Dr Subramaniam Swami[iii], the Apex court reiterated the legal principles regarding the Doctrine of Necessity by stating “We must have a clear conception of the doctrine. It is well settled that the law permits certain things to be done as a matter of necessity which it would otherwise not countenance on the touchstone of judicial propriety.
Stated differently, the doctrine of necessity makes it imperative for the authority to decide and considerations of judicial propriety must yield. It is often invoked in cases of bias where there is no other authority or Judge to decide the issue. If the doctrine of necessity is not allowed full play in certain unavoidable situations, it would impede the course of justice itself and the defaulting party would benefit therefrom.” Therefore, in the need of the hour, it is inevitable for all the concerned authorities to implement strict rules and place rigid penalties in light of the safety of its citizens. The Supreme Court in the case of Lalit Kumar Modi v Board of Control[iv] explained the necessity to invoke this doctrine to tide over difficult situations by stating that law in its strictest sense does not always contemplate a vacuum, therefore, it is necessary to find a solution to a problem rather than letting it boil over.
As difficult as it has been for the nation to cope up with the recent rules and regulations, the cooperation of the citizens is now needed more than ever. Such drastic times call for drastic measures and it is the duty of the lawyers to abide by the rules and by doing so they’d be setting an example. Instead of finding loopholes in the law and misinterpreting it, we must join hand with the officials in helping them to curb this nationwide outbreak. By raising issues over justified rules, we might be on the brink of setting some dangerous precedents.
[i]Saurabh Sharma vs Sub-Divisional Magistrate, East & Ors, W.P.(C) NO. 6595 of 2020
[ii]Satvinder Singh Saluja & Ors Vs. The State of Bihar, AIR 2019 SC 3274
[iii]Election Commission of India v. Dr Subramaniam Swami, (1996) 4 SCC 104
[iv]Lalit Kumar Modi v Board of Control for Cricket in India, (2011) 10 SCC 106
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This article has been written by Aayushi Mittra, 3rd Year, BLS LLB Student at Pravin Gandhi College of Law.
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