The Bombay High Court on Friday directed the state government and railway authorities to devise a mechanism to ensure that people from all sectors are able to reach their offices through increased local train services while ensuring that Covid-19 physical distancing norms are followed.
The Court also asked the authorities to involve stakeholders from all sectors including essential service providers and frame a ‘broader policy’ on staggered work timings to avoid overcrowding at railway stations and the issue of rush in local trains during peak hours is addressed during a pandemic situation. It further asked the state government to inform it about the measures it proposes to take in the event of a ‘second wave’ of number of covid-19 cases during the months of December and January, as predicted by news reports.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni made these directions while hearing PILs seeking directions to the state government to consider practising advocates as essential service providers and permit them to travel by suburban local trains to attend hearings at trial courts.
During last hearing on October 7, observing that despite easing of lockdown restrictions, local train services on both Central Railway (CR) and Western Railway (WR) had not increased correspondingly, the HC had directed the central and state governments to ensure that services on both lines are increased to 700 per day each to avoid overcrowding in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).
On Friday, Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni for the state government said that the state had no objection to increasing the frequency local train services in view of the existing load of passengers. He said that the state had been asking the railway authorities to increase service from time to time based on demand and services were increased.
“We have slowly started opening sectors one by one as figures of Covid positive cases are going down. The reason why we are doing it in a phased manner is the capacity of the health sector to treat patients. We cannot open sectors so that the number of patients will exceed it. Whenever there is decline, we open up one sector that results in a small increase in Covid cases, but it doesn’t cross the threshold. That is how we have opened up restaurants. We are trying to take a judicious approach.” Kumbhakoni said.
He also said that many of the persons allowed to use local trains and other modes of public transport were not observing physical distancing norms and were not following safety guidelines such as wearing masks. He said that if the lawyers’ demand was to be allowed, the Court was required to pass appropriate orders to ensure everyone was wearing masks.
“Please understand the gravity of the pandemic. We are going to have a parental approach. There is no return ticket for Coronavirus and we have to live with it. Therefore, people need to be careful. If we allow the public to enter local trains, we expect them to behave properly,” Kumbhakoni said.
Thereafter, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh submitted a chart of current local train passengers, which showed the number of commuters at various hours, and pointed out that the problem of overcrowding in trains was seen only during peak hours- 8 to 10 am and 4-7 pm. He said that railways had suggested staggering of office timings to the state government and that can be a solution to avoid huge crowds not reaching platforms at the same time.
Senior counsel Milind Sathe also submitted that the staggered work times would also be amenable for lawyers and they can be asked to travel by local trains only when they had cases before subordinate courts having staggered timings and functioning during non-peak hours.
After hearing submissions, CJ Datta said, “We have to draw experience from the past over six months. Survival should be the foremost thing in our mind. Device a mechanism to ensure that all people do not come to the Railway platforms at same time.”
The Court asked the authorities to discuss with all stakeholders including non-essential service providers and find a way to ensure staggered timings. It said that the ministerial intervention was required for the same as it could be left to officers to workout the timings. “You have to have a broader policy on this. Sooner the better, ” Justice Kulkarni said.
The bench also said that it was extending ‘on experimental basis,’ the facility of e-pass for advocates to allow them to travel by special local trains to attend physical hearings of cases to lawyers appearing before the subordinate courts in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) for five days and would review it thereafter.
Seeking responses to its suggestions from the state government and lawyers’ associations, the Court posted further hearing to October 19.
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