Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka and Tripura are yet to follow directives on timely payment of salaries to healthcare workers engaged in COVID-19 duties, the Centre on Friday told the Supreme Court, which said it cannot be "helpless" in implementing the directions.
The top court also asked the Centre to clarify that compulsory quarantine period of healthcare workers is not to be treated as leave and salaries are not deducted for the period. A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and M R Shah told the Centre to issue directions for releasing the salaries on time.
"If the states are not complying with the directions and orders of the Central government, you are not helpless. You have to ensure that your order is implemented. You have got the power under the Disaster Management Act. You can take steps also," the bench told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre.
Mehta said that after the top court's directions on June 17, necessary orders were issued on June 18 to all the states with regard to timely payment of salaries to healthcare workers.
He submitted that five states — Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tripura and Karnataka — have not paid the salaries to the full satisfaction of doctors and healthcare workers engaged in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Mehta said that appropriate steps in this regard shall be taken by the central government to ensure that salaries of doctors and health workers are released.
He sought a week's time to apprise the court about the steps taken in this regard, which was granted by the top court. Senior Advocate KV Vishwanathan, appearing for doctor-petitioner Arushi Jain, said the high risk and low risk classification made by the Centre has no basis and the government advisory of June 18 after the top court's order has no rationale basis.
He said there is still non-payment of salaries to healthcare workers. Jain, a private doctor, has questioned the Centre's May 15 decision that 14-day quarantine was not mandatory for doctors.
The top court also took note of an application filed by United Resident Doctors Association (URDA) through advocates Mithu Jain, Mohit Paul and Arnav Vidyarthi that salaries of doctors are being deducted for the period of compulsory quarantine treating it as leave period.
"One of the difficulties, which has been pointed out by counsel for the petitioners is that those doctors and health workers, who are quarantined, their period of quarantine is treated as on leave," the bench said in its order.
To this, Mehta conceded that "the said period can't be treated as leave" and said that he would take necessary instructions on the issue. He said the Central government will take steps to ensure that the salaries of doctors and healthcare workers are paid on time.
"Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General, fairly submits that the said period cannot be treated as leave and he will obtain necessary nstructions/clarifications in that regard. List the matters on August 10," the bench said. On June 17, the top court had directed the Centre to issue orders in 24-hours to all states and Union Territories for payment of salaries to doctors and healthcare workers as also for providing suitable quarantine facilities for those who are directly engaged in treatment of COVID-19 patients.
It had said, "The Central Government shall issue appropriate direction to the Chief Secretary of the States/ Union Territories to ensure that the orders are faithfully complied with, violation of which may be treated as an offence under the Disaster Management Act read with the Indian Penal Code." Jain had also alleged in her plea that frontline healthcare workers engaged in the fight against COVID-19 are not being paid salaries or their wages are being cut or delayed.
The Centre had earlier told the top court that the May 15 circular on Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) will also be modified, doing away the clause for non-mandatory quarantine for healthcare workers engaged in COVID-19 duty, and they will not be denied the quarantine. On June 12, the top court had observed, "In war, you do not make soldiers unhappy. Travel an extra mile and channel some extra money to address their grievances."
It had said that the courts should not be involved in the issue of non-payment of salary to healthcare workers and the government should settle the issue.