As India braces for a third wave of COVID-19 even thought most states are gradually opening up after just recovering from the second wave, questions arise if the violation of COVID-19 protocols at protest venues risk further infection rates.
Orders issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs require all citizens to persons to ensure COVID-appropriate behaviour, by restricting gathering, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and imposing curfew in specified areas. The order restricts gathering to a maximum of 200 persons in an open space, however multiple protests held by farm organisations have crossed that number.
The MHA has also issued the guidelines for protection of vulnerable persons, including persons above the age of 65 years to stay home. However, many protestors engaged in the farmers' agitation are noted to be above the specified age or those having co-morbidities, making them vulnerable to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Even after ensuring strict enforcement by the local police authorities, the union of farmers led by so-called leaders continue to protest in non-compliance with the aforesaid guidelines.
Despite regular requests by the government that the unions send back elderly, women and children to their homes, the farmer unions and their so-called leaders have continued to defy guidelines and endanger lives.
Four Punjab farmers returning from protest sites near Delhi borders were killed in two separate road accidents on 15 December. In the first incident, two farmers were killed and four others were injured after a truck hit their tractor-trolley near Taraori flyover in Karnal.
Who will take responsibility for the potential spread of the pandemic and subsequent loss of lives? Already, due to various traffic incidents and pre-existing health problems, there have been reports of deaths of farmers who were headed to the protests or were at the protest sites. Some have even refused to undergo mandated COVID-19 tests.
Senior Medical Officer (Sonipat) Anvita Kaushik, who is also the in-charge of medical facilities at the Singhu border protest site, told PTI that despite her team's "best efforts", farmers are not willing to get tested for COVID-19.
Such protests have resulted in a dis-balanced right to life and health of the general public. The right to protest exercised by the union of farmers have also hindered the right of the others constitutional right to life and health under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
In the case of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan v. Union of India & Anr., (2018) 17 SCC 324, it was observed that each fundamental right, be it an individual or of a class, does not exist in isolation and has to be balanced with every other contrasting right.
The plea sought the apex court directions to the authorities to open the roads at Delhi borders, shift these protestors to the allotted place and provide guidelines on social distancing and use of masks at the protest place to contain the spread of COVID-19 cases. The petition, filed by law student Rishabh Sharma, has claimed that Delhi Police had, on 27 November, allowed these protesters to hold demonstration peacefully at Nirankari ground at Burari in the national capital, but despite that, they have blocked the borders of Delhi.
The plea said that due to the ongoing protest at Delhi borders, roads have been blocked and vehicular movement has been affected. Traffic has been affected at several border points of the national capital as police kept key routes connecting Delhi to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh closed in view of the farmers' protest.