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Karnataka High Court on grant of COVID-19 moratorium

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) notified COVID-19 – Regulatory Package (Circular) on 27 March 2020 which inter-alia, permitted all commercial banks, co-operative banks, all India Financial Institutions and NBFCs to grant a 3-month moratorium on all payment of installments falling due between March 1, 2020 and May 31, 2020. Subsequently, on 22 May 2020, the period of the moratorium was extended by another 3 months by the RBI.

Detailed note on the Circular can be accessed at https://jsacovid19.blogspot.com/2020/04/rbi-instructions-in-light-of-covid-19.html

Followed by the Circular, the Ministry of Finance also issued FAQs on the matter to address the technicalities of the moratorium. However, several ambiguities still persisted in the subject matter, which the Karnataka High Court has addressed in its judgment on 8 July 2020 while ruling on a Writ Petition filed by a borrower.

The Writ Petition was filed by Velankani Information Systems Limited (VISL) engaged in the business of running an information technology park and a 5-star hotel. VISL had availed loan facilities from HDFC Bank, Federal Bank and Aditya Birla Finance to run the business. All 3 banks have a pari passu first charge over the receivables, revenue and rent from the hotel and tech park business.

VISL was forced to shut down its hotel on account of the Covid-19 pandemic causing VISL to approach the banks for grant of the moratorium. Aditya Birla Finance was willing to grant the moratorium. However, as the lending facility was a consortium finance with common securities and pari passu charge, Aditya Birla Finance contended that the grant of the moratorium required the consent of the other two banks. The other banks contended that the Circular issued by RBI was not mandatory in nature and only directory, and hence the discretion of granting the moratorium lies solely with the lending institution.

Ruling on the nature of the Circular, the Court held that, though the Circular is discretionary in nature, as to the power of a bank to grant moratorium or not, it is mandatory for the banks to ensure the continuity of viable businesses, that is, the non-grant of a moratorium should not result in adversely affecting the survival and continuity of a viable business.

Further, the banks have also, in the FAQs on their respective websites, stated that all their customers would be eligible for such moratorium in lines with the Circular.

Therefore, it was held that all borrowers are eligible to seek for a moratorium. If a borrower were to seek for grant of a moratorium on the ground that continuity of its business would be affected and establish the same, the borrower would as a matter of right be entitled to the grant of moratorium so that such continuity is not adversely affected. And all 3 banks, HDFC Bank, Federal Bank and Aditya Birla Finance was directed by the Court to grant moratorium to VISL for the three months from 01 March 2020 to 31 May 2020 and also for the extended period from 01 June 2020 to 31 August 2020.

The Court also directed the RBI to monitor the implementation of the Circular, including verification of whether there are board-approved policies formulated by each of the lenders, direct all the banks to submit the board-approved policies for approval to the RBI, to approve such board-approved policy, verify if such a board-approved policy contains objective criteria, set up a proper and effective grievance redressal forum for any aggrieved borrower to approach on account of the improper or non-implementation of the policy and/or Circular etc.

The High Court order sought to clear the lack of consensus among the banks on the extension of loan moratorium due to lack of clarity from RBI.

This case is also peculiar due to the fact that the Court had allowed a writ of mandamus against private institutions, stating that the enforcement of the Circular involved enforcing a public duty, though it was against a private body.
Ruling in favour of the maintainability of the Writ, the Court held that, as the Circular was issued to protect and preserve the economy of the country on the account of the COVID 19 pandemic, the issuance of the Circular is in the public interest, the interest of the economy and the country.

UGC issues revised guidelines for conduct of final year examinations

In order to streamline the impact of lock-downs and social distancing on the conduct of exams, the University Grants Commission of India (UGC), constituted an Expert Committee to deliberate on the issues related to the conduct of examinations and the academic calendar during the pandemic to avoid academic loss to students. The UGC is a statutory body of the Government of India responsible for the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in university education, in India.

Based on the recommendation of the Expert Committee, the UGC had issued Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for Universities on 29 April 2020. Under these guidelines it was proposed to conduct examinations in July 2020.

However, in the light of rising COVID-19 cases and the likelihood of it further increasing, the Expert Committee was requested to revisit the guidelines. Pursuant to the recommendations of the committee, on 6 July 2020, UGC issued Revised Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for the Universities:

  1. The Universities are required to complete terminal semester/ final year examinations for the academic year 2019-2020 by the end of September 2020 in offline/ online/ blended mode.
  2. If a student of terminal semester or final year is unable to appear in the examination, he/she must be given an opportunity to appear in special examinations conducted by the university to ensure that the student is not put to any inconvenience or disadvantage.
  3. The students of terminal semester or final year having backlog should compulsorily be evaluated by conducting exams in offline/ online/ blended mode as per feasibility and suitability.
  4. For intermediate semester/ years guidelines as notified on 29 April 2020 will be applicable.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, keeping in mind the interest of students has agreed to grant an exemption for opening of educational institutions for the purpose of holding final term examinations. Further, the Ministry of the Ministry of Human Resource Development has formulated detailed Standard Operating Procedures for conduct of such examinations, which has been vetted by the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs.

While, the governments of Karnataka and Gujarat have decided to hold university exams pursuant to the UGC Guidelines, some governments such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Orissa have stated that they will not be able to hold exams, and that the guidelines issued by UGC can only be advisory in nature and not mandatory.

Unlockdown 1.0 – Karnataka Guidelines

Pursuant to the order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”), Government of India bearing No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 17 May 2020 on extension of lockdown till 31 May 2020 and guidelines on lockdown measures, the Karnataka State Government vide order No. RD 158 TNR 2020, dated 18 May 2020 issued guidelines on lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the state of Karnataka which was in force from 18 May 2020 to 31 May 2020. A brief overview of the said order issued by the Karnataka State Government can be accessed here.

Subsequently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India issued an order dated 30 May 2020 bearing No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) (“Order”) on the extension of lockdown in the containment zones upto 30 June 2020 and on re-opening of prohibited activities in a phased manner in areas outside containment zones. The guidelines on lockdown measures shall remain in force upto 30 June 2020.

Pursuant to the said Order and in exercise of the powers conferred under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Karnataka State Government has issued updated guidelines dated 30 May 2020 vide order no. RD 158 TNR 2020, on the lockdown measures which will come into effect immediately and be valid till 30 June 2020 (“Karnataka Order”). The Karnataka Order can be accessed here.

1. Phased re-opening of areas outside Containment Zones:

The Karnataka Order primarily permits all activities in areas outside Containment Zones. However, certain specific activities are permitted subject to the Standing Operating Procedures (“SOPs”) that are to be prescribed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (“MoHFW”). These specific activities are proposed to be permitted in three phases:

(i) Phase I:

The Karnataka Order allows the following activities from 08 June 2020 onwards:

(a) Religious places/places of worship;

(b) Hotels, restaurants and hospitality services; and

(c) Shopping malls.

(ii) Phase II:

Schools, colleges, educational/ training/ coaching institutions etc. are proposed to be opened after consultations with parents and other stakeholders. Based on such discussions, a decision in this regard is proposed to be taken in the month of July 2020.

(iii) Phase III:

Dates for resuming the following activities is proposed to be decided based on evaluation of the extent of spread and containment of the situation:

(a) International air travel of passengers, except as permitted by MHA;

(b) Metro Rail;

(c) Cinema halls, gymnasiums, swimming pools, entertainment parks, theatres, bars and auditoriums, assembly halls etc.;

(d) Social, political, sports, entertainment, academic, cultural, religious functions and other large congregations.

2. National Directives for COVID-19 Management:

The National Directives for COVID-19 Management, as annexed to the Karnataka Order in its Annexure I shall continue to be followed throughout the State.

(a) Compulsory wearing of face cover in public places, workplaces and during transport. In the event of any non-compliance in this regard, a fine of INR 100 in rural areas and INR 200 in urban areas shall be imposed;

(b) Maintenance of minimum distance of 6 feet in public places;

(c) Shops to ensure physical distancing and prohibit entry of more than 5 persons at one time;

(d) Large public gatherings are prohibited.

(e) For marriage related gatherings, number of guests to not exceed 50.

(f) For funeral related gatherings, number of persons to not exceed 20.

(g) Spitting in public places is punishable with fine as prescribed by the local authorities;

(h) Consumption of liquor, paan, gutka, tobacco etc. in public places is prohibited.

(i) Workplace directives:

i. Work from home to be practiced to the extent possible;

ii. Staggering of work/ business hours to be followed in workplaces, shops, offices, markets, industrial and commercial establishments;

iii. Provision of thermal screening, sanitizer, hand wash to be made at all entry and exit points and common areas;

iv. Frequent sanitization of all points which come into human contact to be ensured;

v. Practicing of social distancing by workers is to be ensured by all persons

in charge of workplaces.

3. Night Curfew:

Movement of individuals between 9.00pm and 5.00am shall continue to be prohibited throughout the State, except for essential activities. In this regard, the local authorities have been directed to issue orders in the entire area of their jurisdiction and ensure strict compliance.

4. Lockdown in Containment Zones:

(a) The Karnataka Order directs the District Authorities to demarcate the Containment Zones, on due consideration of the guidelines issued by the MoHFW, Government of Karnataka;

(b) It also imposes continuation of the lockdown in such containment zones until 30 June 2020;

(c) Only essential activities are to be allowed in the containment zones;

(d) Strict perimeter control shall be imposed in such zones to ensure that there is no movement of people in and out of these zones, except for medical emergencies and maintenance of supply of essential goods and services. The Karnataka Order also stipulates intensive contact tracing, house-to-house surveillance, and other clinical interventions.

(e) District Authorities/ BBMP may also identify Buffer zones outside the Containment Zones, where new cases are likely to occur. Further, the Karnataka Order allows the District authorities to exercise their discretion to impose restrictions within such buffer zones.

5. Unrestricted Movement of Persons and goods:

(a) The Karnataka Order allows inter-State and intra-State movement of persons and goods without any restriction. No separate permission / approvals / e-permits will be required for any such movements.

(b) Based on its assessment of the situation on account of public health reasons, separate orders will be issued by the MoHFW, Government of Karnataka, regarding inter-state movement of persons to Karnataka.

(c) SOPs are required to be adhered to with respect to the movement of person by passenger train and Shramik special train, domestic passenger air travel, movement of Indian Nationals stranded outside the country and of specified persons to travel abroad, evacuation of foreign nationals, and sign-on & sign-off of Indian seafarers.

6. Protection of vulnerable persons:

Persons above 65 years of age, persons with co-morbidities, pregnant women and children below the age of 10 years are advised to stay at home, except for essential and health purposes.

7. Use of Aarogya Setu:

Employers should on best efforts basis, ensure that the Arogya Setu app is installed by all employees having compatible mobile phones. District authorities and BBMP may also advise individuals in this regard.

8. Strict implementation of the Order:

(a) The District Authorities/BBMP have been directed to not dilute the Order in any man;

(b) Further, all Deputy Commissioners/ Commissioners of BBMP have been directed to strictly enforce the measures mentioned above.

9. Penal Provision:

Any person violating these measures, shall be liable to be proceeded against as per the provisions of Section 51 to 60 of Disaster Management Act, 2005; besides legal action under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code and other applicable provisions.

Karnataka Lockdown Extension Order

Pursuant to the updated order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India dated May 17, 2020 bearing No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) (“Order”) with the new guidelines on the measures to be taken by Ministries / Department of Government of India / states and state authorities for containing the spread of COVID-19, the Karnataka state government has issued updated guidelines on the measures to be taken for containing the spread of COVID-19 which will come into effect immediately and be valid till May 31, 2020 (“Karnataka Order”). The Karnataka Order can be accessed here.

Below is a brief overview of the Karnataka Order, in addition to those set out by the Order:

1. Permitted Activities

  • In all zones areas except containment zones, taxis/autorickshaws (with a maximum of 2 (two) passengers excluding the driver), maxi cabs and aggregators will be permitted to ply with restrictions.

  • Barber shops, saloons and spas will be permitted to operate subject to the standard operating procedure prescribed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

  • Government and municipal parks will be open to the public between specified times subject to restrictions.

2. Curfew: Sundays will be full day lockdown, that is, on Sundays no movement will be permitted from 7AM to 7PM in addition to the 7PM to 7AM curfew, except for essential activities.

3. Demarcation of Zones: The Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Karnataka will demarcate taluks/wards into red, orange and green zones only for the purpose of monitoring and will not impose any additional restrictions to the activities permitted under these guidelines.

Lockdown 4.0 – MHA Guidelines

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued Order Number 1-29/2020 -PP on 17 May 2020, by virtue of its power under Section 6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Act) directing the National Executive Committee (NEC) to continue to implement lockdown measures in all parts of the country, to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Such lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 were first imposed by the NDMA on 24 March 2020, and has now been imposed for the fourth time, until 31 May 2020.

In furtherance of the NDMA orders, the NEC in exercise of its powers under Section 10(2)(l) of the Act, had issued corresponding orders on lockdown measures on 24 March 2020, 29 March 2020, 14 April 2020, 15 April 2020 and 01 May 2020 along with respective addendums (NEC Orders).

Pursuant to the NDMA order on 17 May 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) vide Order No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 17 May 2020 (Order), has issued guidelines on the measures to be taken by Ministries/ Departments of Government of India, State/ UT Governments and State/ UT Authorities for containment of COVID-19 in India, up to 31 May 2020.

On and from 18 May 2020, all the previous orders issued by the NEC in exercise of its powers under Section 10(2)(l) of the Act, including the NEC Orders, shall cease to have effect, unless expressly excepted under this Order.

Demarcation of Zones:

  1. The delineation of Red, Green and Orange zones will be decided by the respective State/ UT Governments, after taking into due consideration the parameters issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).
  2. Further, within the Red and Orange zones, Containment zones and Buffer Zones will be demarcated by the District Authorities, after taking into consideration the guidelines issued by the MoHFW.
  3. In the Containment Zones: (i) only essential activities shall be allowed. (ii) there shall be no movement of people in or out of the zones except for medical emergencies and for maintaining supply of essential goods and services; (iii) there shall be intensive contact tracing, house-to-house surveillance and other clinical interventions, as required.
  4. In other zones, all other activities except those specifically prohibited hereunder, are permitted.

Prohibited activities throughout the country:

  1. All domestic and international air travel, except for medical and security purposes.
  2. Metro rail services.
  3. School, colleges, educational, training and coaching institutions. Online/ distance learning is permitted.
  4. Cinema halls, shopping malls, theatres, parks, gyms, swimming pools, bars, assembly halls and auditoriums.
  5. Sports complexes and stadia are permitted to be open, however, spectators will not be allowed.
  6. Social, political, sports, entertainment, academic, cultural, religious functions and gatherings.
  7. Religious places, places of worship and religious congregations.
  8. Hotels, restaurants and other hospitality services, except, those meant for housing health, police, government officials, healthcare workers, stranded persons, tourists, quarantine facilities and running of canteens at bus depots, railway stations and airports.
  9. Restaurants shall be permitted to operate kitchens for home delivery of food items.

Movement of persons, except in Containment zones:

  1. Inter-state movement of passenger vehicles and buses with mutual consent of the States/UTs involved.
  2. Intra-state movement of passenger vehicles and buses as decided by the States/UTs.


  1. Irrespective of the zones, the Order prohibits all movement of individuals between 7.00 pm to 7.00 am, except for essential activities.
  2. The local authorities shall invoke appropriate provisions of law and issue such orders as it deems fit to ensure strict compliance of the curfew.
  3. Persons above 65 years of age, persons with co-morbidities, pregnant women and children below 10 years of age have been directed to stay at home, except for essential and health purposes.

Movement of certain persons and goods that are permitted:

  1. Inter-State and Intra-State movement of medical professionals, nurses, para-medical staff, sanitisation personnel and ambulances are permitted without any restrictions.
  2. Inter-State movement of all types of goods/ cargo, including empty trucks.
  3. Movement of any type of goods/ cargo for cross land-border trade under Treaties with neighbouring countries.

Standard Operating Procedures:

The Order directs strict adherence to the following Standard Operating Procedures for movement of persons:

  1. SOP for transit arrangements for foreign nationals in India issued vide Order dated April 02, 2020.
  2. SOP on movement of stranded labour within States/ UTs, issued vide Order dated April 19, 2020.
  3. SOP on sign-on and sign-off of Indian seafarers, issued vide Order dated April 21, 2020.
  4. SOP on movement of stranded migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students and other persons, issued vide Order dated April 29, 2020 and Order dated May 01, 2020.
  5. SOP on movement of Indian Nationals stranded outside the country and of specified persons to travel abroad, issued vide Order dated May 5, 2020.
  6. SOP on movement of person by train, issued vide Order dated May 11, 2020.

The Order further allows the States/ UTs, to prohibit certain other activities/ impose restriction, in the various zones as deemed necessary, based on their assessment of the situation.

Extending the lockdown till 31 May 2020, the Government of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the states with leading count of active cases, have issued fresh guidelines for restrictions and relaxations of activities in the states.
Gujarat, the state with second highest number of cases, is yet to issue guidelines in this regard.

Use of Aarogya Setu Application (App):

To provide timely medical attention and to ensure safety in offices and workplaces, the Order directs employers to ensure that the App is installed by all employees, on a best effort basis.

Relaxations of compliances under Goods and Services Tax

In view of the COVID-19 outbreak and the nation-wide lockdown, the Government has issued notifications in line with the Taxation and other Laws (Relaxation of certain provisions) Ordinance, 2020, amending the Goods and Services Tax Rules, 2017 (“CGST Rules”) and providing relaxations for compliances to the taxpayer.

Key relaxations under such notifications are summarised below.

1. NIL/reduced rate of interest payable on late payment of taxNotification No. 31/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Prescribes NIL or reduced rate of interest for delayed filing of form GSTR-3B for the months of February 2020, March 2020 and April 2020, subject to the condition that form GSTR-3B for the said months are filed within the prescribed due dates. Please refer the below table for the due dates and applicable rates of interest.

Class of registered personRate of interestTax periodDue dates
Taxpayers having an aggregate turnover of more than INR 5 crores in the preceding financial yearNil for the first 15 days from the due date and 9% thereafterFebruary 2020, March 2020 and April 2020June 24, 2020
Taxpayers having an aggregate turnover of more than INR 1.5 crores and up to INR 5 crores in the preceding financial yearNilFebruary  2020 and March 2020June 29, 2020
April 2020June 30, 2020
Taxpayers having an aggregate turnover of up to INR 1.5 crores in the preceding financial yearNilFebruary 2020June 30, 2020
March 2020July 03, 2020
April 2020July 06, 2020

2. Late fees waived on delayed filing of Form GSTR 3BNotification No. 32/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Waives the amount of late fee payable on account of delayed filing of form GSTR-3B for the months of February 2020, March 2020 and April 2020, subject to condition that form GSTR-3B for the said months are filed within the prescribed due dates (as mentioned in the above table).

3. Late fees waived on delayed filing of Form GSTR 1Notification No. 33/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Waives late fee payable on account of delayed filing of form GSTR-1 for the months of February 2020, March 2020 and April 2020 subject to the condition that form GSTR-1 for the said months are filed by June 30, 2020.

4. Due date for filing Form GSTR 3B for the month of May 2020Notification No. 36/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Prescribes staggered due dates for filing form GSTR-3B for the month of May 2020. The due dates are tabulated below for ease of reference.

Class of registered personDue date
Aggregate turnover in the preceding financial year of more than INR 5 croresJune 27, 2020
Aggregate turnover in the preceding financial year upto INR 5 crores, in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, the Union territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands or LakshadweepJuly 12, 2020
Aggregate turnover in the preceding financial year upto INR 5 crores in the States of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand or Odisha, the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Chandigarh or DelhiJuly 14, 2020

5. Time limits pertaining to various proceedings extended Notification No. 35/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Provides relaxation of completion or compliance of any action required to be undertaken by a registered person and/ or a tax authority (such as issuance of notices, orders, etc. and filing replies, appeals, etc.) during the period March 20, 2020 to June 29, 2020, under the provisions of Central Goods and Service Tax Act, 2017 (‘CGST Act’) and CGST Rules, by extending such time limit to June 30, 2020.

However, the said extension will not be available for undertaking compliances pertaining to obtaining registration, issuance of tax paying documents, filing of returns, payment of interest and late fees, power to arrest, liability of partners under Section 90 of CGST Act, levy of penalties for various offences, detention and seizure of goods and generation of e-way bills.

Further, the said notification provides relaxation in relation to e-way bills, by extending the validity of e-way bills expiring during the period March 20, 2020 to April 15, 2020, till April 30, 2020.

6. Relaxation in compliance with Rule 36(4) of CGST RulesNotification No. 30/2020-Central Tax April 3, 2020 and Circular No. 136/06/2020-GST dated April 3, 2020
Provides that restriction prescribed for availing input tax credit as per the provisions of Rule 36(4) of CGST Rules, will not apply to input tax credit availed by the registered persons in form GSTR-3B for the months of February, March, April, May, June, July and August, 2020, however, the same will apply cumulatively for the said period and form GSTR-3B for the month of September, 2020 will be furnished with a cumulative adjustment of input tax credit for the said months in accordance with Rule 36(4) of CGST Rules.

7. Relaxation for dealers opting for composition schemeNotification No. 30/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020
Provides for a relaxed time period for filing intimation under form GST CMP-02 and statement in for GST ITC-03 required for intimating the authorities for opting for composition scheme, for the financial year 2020-21 till June 30, 2020 and July 31, 2020, respectively.

Further, Notification No. 34/2020-Central Tax dated April 3, 2020 prescribes due date for filing statement for payment of self-assessed tax in form GST CMP-08 for quarter ending March 31, 2020 to be July 7, 2020 and due date for filing form GSTR-4 for FY 2019-20 to be July 15, 2020.

COVID-19 and Section 144

If you follow Indian news, your feed is sure to have been inundated with announcements that one state or another had imposed “Section 144” within its limits. This post seeks to demystify the meaning and import of this section, particularly in the context of its current use.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a key public health challenge to countries – how does one prevent community transmission? In epidemiology, “community transmission” means that the source of infection can no longer be traced i.e., an infected person can no longer be shown to have a link to the carrier of the disease – the virus is everywhere. The World Health Organisation defines it by saying: “Community transmission is evidenced by the inability to relate confirmed cases through chains of transmission for a large number of cases, or by increasing positive tests through sentinel samples (routine systematic testing of respiratory samples from established laboratories).”[i]

One of the key strategies that has been used to combat the risk of community transmission is Social Distancing – a technique that the Indian governments (Central and State) have been encouraging vociferously. The persistent bugbear, however, has been the sheer reluctance of people to stay at home. In a populous country like India, with her overcrowded public transport, spotty sense of hygiene, penchant for large public gatherings, and a large and vulnerable at-risk population of older people, this is a recipe for disaster. To begin with various state governments announced shutdowns of public gathering places including malls, gyms, shopping centres (other than essential commodities), and wedding halls. However, as the incidence of new cases increases in geometric progression and as global infection rates and fatalities show no signs of abating, several state governments have started imposing Section 144 orders in their states.

Section 144 of India’s Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 is titled “Power to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger”. It empowers a District Magistrate to pass an order, in writing, to order a person/persons or the public at large to do or refrain from doing anything that could be a “danger to human life, health or safely, or a disturbance of the public tranquility”. An order under this section can remain valid only for 2 months, although the relevant State Government has the power to extend it for a further 6 months. A contravention of this order is punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) with imprisonment for up to 6 months or a fine up to INR 1,000 or both.

To offer a mere taste of the scale of its use, as of 21 March 2020:

· The union territory of Puducherry has imposed Section 144 across all its districts (i.e. Puducherry, Mahe, Karaikal and Yanam) restricting public gatherings to no more than 4 people. This will not apply to essentials such as groceries and medicines, although vegetable markets will have more restricted hours. The government has appealed to its people to refrain from overcrowding.

· Section 144 has been imposed in South Goa[ii] and North Goa[iii] to restrict large public gatherings. Section 144 was imposed in a staggered manner, covering an increasing number of establishments.[iv] Inter-state supply of non-essentials has also been suspended.

· Noida, an early adopter of Section 144, has extended the order until April 5, banning public gatherings of more than 4 people.

· Erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir (now union territories of Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh), no stranger to Section 144 orders, now faces this prohibition to promote public health, instead of as a means to address law and order challenges. Multiple districts in Jammu[v] have imposed restrictions. Anantnag prohibits gatherings of more than 5 people, as do the districts of Budgam, Shopian, Kishtwar and Ramban[vi].

· Section 144 has been imposed in Rajasthan to prevent a gathering of 4 or more people.

· In Mumbai, Section 144 has been against tour operators. Other Maharashtrian regions of Nashik and Nagpur have broader Section 144 orders. Nevertheless, extensive lock-downs have been ordered in Mumbai over the coming weeks.

· Four districts in Himachal Pradesh (Una, Chamba, Hamirpur and Solan) are under Section 144.

· The southern state of Kerala, and one of the epicenters of COVID-19 in India, has imposed stringent prohibitions against public gatherings under the Epidemic Disease Control Act, 1897 and has authorized district magistrates to issue Section 144.

· The Kodagu district of Karnataka also faces a Section 144 which shall remain in place till 31 March 2020.

UPDATE: On 22 March 2020, Section 144 was imposed in two more key locations:

· The National Capital Territory of Delhi – this will be in force till midnight on 31 March 2020. No public gathering of more than 5 people will be permitted. Only half of Delhi’s buses will run during this time. No one is allowed to leave their houses unless for a purpose related to essential services.

· All cities in Maharashtra – only 5% of government employees will come in to work. No public gathering of more than 5 people will be permitted. All forms of public transport will be unavailable. There will be no inter-state buses and international flights will not be permitted to land.

It is easy to see why Section 144 is such a powerful and desirable tool in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) – State governments can, for their most affected districts, order a limitation of public gathering, delineate working hours for public transport and essential services and, act quickly to mitigate risks in high-risk districts. Above all, this kind of order has a crucial advantage over other lock-down orders (such as those passed under Epidemic Diseases Control Act, 1897), which is that governments can enforce Section 144 orders, through well-established modes of criminal prosecution, against those who disobey them. This can be a huge deterrent for those who would otherwise have been asymptomatic/mildly infected vectors of a deadly disease.

Caution must, however, be exercised to ensure minimal disruption of essentials (such as vegetables, groceries and pharmacies) to prevent panic buying and hoarding. Constant communication of reliable information from authentic government sources, regarding what is and is not prohibited, can serve the dual purpose of educating the public while also fighting the scourge of fake news that inundates social media.

In short, Section 144 orders are unambiguous communications by a state of the seriousness of the public health situation in a district. While these can, and do, pose large economic and social burdens on many, the public health benefits they can usher will outweigh their difficulties. Section 144, to be truly effective, must be coupled with intensive screening and testing, regular follow-up of suspicious cases, stringent enforcement of quarantine for those infected or suspected of infection, constant awareness of hygiene best practices, co-opting of India’s vast private sector healthcare infrastructure to ease the burden on state resources, travel restrictions and coordinated international efforts to find effective means of risk management (including vaccines). These must also be coupled with economic stimulus packages or social security payments to those whose livelihoods and employment will be derailed by such restrictions.

Section 144 is no magic wand, but as part of the arsenal in a holistic approach to fighting COVID-19, it is a robust weapon.

[i] Available at https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200320-sitrep-60-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=d2bb4f1f_2 As an example, if people infected in India have no history of international travel and no contact, direct or indirect, can be established between them and any person with such travel history/a confirmed patient, then the community transmission stage will have begun.

[ii] https://www.goa.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Order-Section-144-Collectorate-South.pdf

[iii] https://www.goa.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/order-977-collectorate-north.pdf

[iv] https://www.goa.gov.in/covid-19/

[v] https://jk.gov.in/jammukashmir/sites/default/files/Order%20for%20Imposition%20of%20section%20144.pdf

[vi] https://jk.gov.in/jammukashmir/sites/default/files/Order%20for%20Imposition%20of%20section%20144.pdf

Restrictions on Functioning of Courts in India

As an important measure of avoiding large gatherings in view of the coronavirus outbreak, and following the Supreme Court’s decision to hear only urgent matters[1], the National Company Law Tribunals (NCLTs)[2] and most of the High Courts across India have limited their functions as well.

Detailed notification of the respective courts can be accessed below:

  1. Mumbai
  2. Calcutta
  3. Delhi (also read the additional notice)
  4. Karnataka (read additional memorandum)
  5. Gujarat
  6. Madhya Pradesh
  7. Orissa
  8. Punjab and Haryana. Similar limitations have been placed on District courts of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh.
  9. Rajasthan
  10. Telangana
  11. Chennai and Sub-ordinate courts

[1] https://main.sci.gov.in/pdf/Notification/13032020_120544.pdf
[2] https://nclt.gov.in/sites/default/files/Feb-All-PDF/Notice%20dated%2015.3.2020.pdf