New Delhi: Stating that panic will destroy more lives than coronavirus, the Supreme Court on Tuesday favoured criminal action against those spreading misinformation and fake news on the pandemic.
A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao, in the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, emphasised that fake news creates panic among people, thus requiring the Centre to have an official channel of directly communicating with the people and sharing authentic information on the coronavirus outbreak.
“We want to impress upon you that the panic will destroy more lives than the virus. You need counsellors. You can have bhajan-kirtan, namaz or whatever but you have to give strength to the people… get community leaders belonging to all faiths,” the CJI told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
The court pointed out that the government’s affidavit about the steps being taken to ameliorate the situation has nothing on the aspect of counselling to people, including the migrant workers who are lodged in shelter homes and other temporary accommodations.
Mehta replied that he is willing to make a statement that the government will engage counsellors and will also mobilise religious leaders, maulvis, sadhus to counsel the migrants in the shelters and help them to stay calm.
“I am making statement here that within 24 hours we will mobilise trained counsellors and religious leaders,” said the law officer, adding the government will also set up a panel entrusted with the responsibility of disseminating credible information to people.
The court also asked the Solicitor General to deploy volunteers for managing the shelter homes meant for the migrants and that there should not be use of force and intimidation for these people who are already living in a state of fear and uncertainty.
It pointed out that all states should also comply with all the directives passed by the National Disaster Management Authority with regard to containing the pandemic.
Earlier, the government brought on record a detailed affidavit in response to two PILs that highlighted the plights of migrant workers trying to go back to their villages, and sanitisation of shelter homes being used to house them during the lockdown.
The Centre made a categorical statement that no migrant worker was stranded on the road and that 6.68 lakh have been provided temporary accommodation with 22.88 lakh being provided food across the country.
Mehta submitted that the rural population is so far unaffected by the outbreak but the fear is that three out of every 10 persons moving back from cities to villages might carry the virus.
At this, the judges asked the SG to ensure coordination between Centre and states so as to make certain uniformity in action.
SG said that there is less spread of the infection in our country due to proactive response and integrated disease surveillance system, which ensured people with symptoms being sent to a quarantine facility quickly.
“3.48 lakh have been quarantined so far. 15.5 lakh people were screened at the airport while 12 lakh were monitored at the sea ports,” said Mehta, adding the lab testing capacity has also been enhanced from a single lab in January 2020 to 118 labs with a total capacity of 15,000 tests per day.
According to the MHA control-room, states and UTs have set up 21,064 relief camps.
The law officer also called fake news the single-largest problem, prompting the bench to issue directive for having an expert panel to spread authentic information while at the same time, launch criminal prosecutions of those causing panic through misinformation through social media.
The court then passed detailed directives on ensuring supply of food, water, beds and medicines to the migrants, apart from counselling.
It also gave 24 hours to the government for setting up the portal to answer people’s queries on the pandemic while adjourning the case to April 7.