A Case of Declining Judicial Federalism in India

Synopsis: SC transferred all oxygen supply-related cases in various High Courts. It did so, in the name of prioritising uniformity across nations in the distribution of essential services. This step of SC is against Judicial Federalism in India.

  • In Parmanand Katara v. Union of India (1989), the Supreme Court said that ‘the right to emergency medical treatment is part of the citizen’s fundamental rights.
  • The lack of oxygen supply during the Covid-19 crisis prompted many hospitals to file pleas in their respective High court lately. They wanted to defend their right to emergency medical treatment.
  • Accordingly, the High Courts of Delhi, Gujarat, Madras, and Bombay issued a series of directions to the executive. For instance,
      • Bombay High Court, directed immediate restoration of oxygen supply that had been reduced from the Bhilai steel plant in Chhattisgarh.
      • The Delhi High Court directed the Central government to ensure adequate measures for the supply of oxygen.
  • Later, the Supreme court (SC) took suo motu cognisance of the issue and hinted the possibility of shifting the cases related to oxygen supply to supreme court from high courts.
  • The SC said that the distribution of essential services needs uniformity across the nation. Further, it asked the Central government to prepare a national plan for the same.
  • However, several senior lawyers have criticized the intervention by the Supreme Court while High Courts were already hearing the issues.
  • This move by the SC is against judicial federalism in India.
Why the decision of SC is seen as an attack against Judicial federalism in India?
  1. First, Article 139A of the Constitution empowers the SC to transfer cases from the High Courts to itself if cases involve the same questions of law.
    • However, the SC’s contemporary conduct of being indifferent towards executive actions in significant cases has cast doubt over Judiciary. For instance,
    • The SC did not use article 139A to hear cases related to the Internet ban in Kashmir or activists and journalists who were arrested and detained.
  2. Second, many lawyers viewed this as an act of “arrogance of power” and contempt for and disregard of the High Courts in the country.
  3. Third, declining of trust over SC to provide deliberative justice. SC sits in two or more benches to deliberate and dissent upon significant issues. However, In recent years, there is a lack of dissent in issues that have serious political implications.
  4. Fourth, public health and hospitals come under the State List. And the respective High Courts have been dealing with specific challenges at the regional level. It did not warrant any interference from the SC.
  5. Fifth, In L. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India (1997), the SC itself has said that the High Courts have significant advantage in winning the confidence of the people. Further, the power of the High Court under Article 226 to issue writs is wider than the Supreme Court’s under Article 32.
Way forward
  • Need to learn from the good practices of the American Judicial System. The U.S. Supreme Court reviews only a few cases from state courts. It ensures autonomy in the application of federal law for the State courts.
  • Further, the need for a uniform judicial order across India is needed only in cases of conflict of laws or judgments on legal interpretation. Otherwise, autonomy, not uniformity, and decentralisation not centrism should be the rule.


Source: The Hindu


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