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The Supreme Court (SC) did well to stay the Allahabad High Court’s (HC’s) order to the Uttar Pradesh government to impose lockdown in five districts in view of the Covid-19 situation there. The HC, on Monday, had slammed the state government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation and had observed that if the government “has its own political compulsions in not checking public movements during this pandemic, we can not remain mere passive spectators … We can’t shirk away from our Constitutional duty to save innocent people from the pandemic…” That is where the HC got it wrong; while it does indeed have a Constitutional duty to deliver justice, this duty also includes upholding the separation of powers.
In ordering a lockdown, it rushed into the executive’s domain. To be sure, the HC may have had the best interests of the people and its Constitutional duty towards them in mind; Uttar Pradesh, as the latest Rural Health Statistics shows, is a clear laggard in terms of public health infrastructure and the current Covid-19 wave, if it gets any worse, could well be a tsunami that even the well-equipped states can’t handle. On the other hand, the impact of lockdowns on livelihoods and, correspondingly, on lives & health is something that the executive must factor in before taking such a decision.
The HC could have done what the SC has ordered the state government to do—report to the HC on steps it is taking to control spread. This, some could argue, imposes a cost in terms of the time taken to roll out the measures, but it is important to remember that a lockdown without ensuring adequate preparation to meet people’s needs, especially the basic needs of nutrition for the most vulnerable economic sections of the society, could exact a similar if not larger cost.