This article is written by Mr. Ayush Sarna, who is  Assistant Advocate General, Punjab at Punjab and Haryana High Court.

‘In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity’- Albert Einstein

This phrase is apposite amidst this Covid-19 pandemic, which has effected entire humanity, having far reaching effects not seen by anyone living today. The economies are in lock down and in free fall, upon which even  International Monetary Fund (IMF) has observed that this Corona-virus induced global downturn is even ‘way worse’ than financial crisis.

    There is no evidence that, at the global level, the pandemic has abated yet and would be brought under control soon. Meanwhile, International Council of Jurists (ICJ) and All India Bar Association (AIBA) have moved a complaint in United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC), headquartered at Geneva, to inquire and direct China to adequately compensate international community and member states, including India ,for developing a ‘Biological Weapon’ of mass destruction in a clandestine manner, making it a crime against humanity.

    The complaint mentions that China clearly violated the provisions of Article 6 and 7 of International Health Regulations (IHR), under which public authorities are mandated to notify the WHO, about the existence of a disease of public and international concern , within 24 hours of assessment of public health information. But Chinese authorities provided partial information about the novel Corona virus only on 14th February,2020 after the virus had affected more than 2,000 people and killed many. They didn’t curb the travel of infected persons for 2 months and allowed more than 5 million people including from Wuhan , to travel abroad as asymptomatic oblivious carriers and thus, contributing to the exacerbation of the spread of virus across the globe.

Though the complaint allowed the grave violation to be highlighted at the international fora, but it might turn out to be a futile exercise and won’t catalyze global action. UNHRC, formed in 2006, is often dubbed as ‘ Toothless debating society’ with no impact, as its resolutions and decisions are not legally binding. Moreover, despite everything, in this month of April, China is appointed to a panel on UNHRC , who would select officials to shape international human rights standards and report on violations worldwide. It’s like making a pyromaniac into a chief fire officer.

    There is infinitesimal chance of any concrete action taken by any international forum, but in the thick of all gloom and doom, there is a silver lining. Our Mother Earth is taking a deep breath of fresh air and seems to have rejuvenated itself. Smog has given way to blue skies, as the pollution levels have dropped drastically and ozone layer is healing. Satellite imagery of the rivers like Yamuna ,have shown that the pollution load in the river has reduced, as the stoppage of industrial discharge had a positive effect on the river’s water quality.

  So, instead of worrying about what you cannot control, we must shift our energies to what we can create. Where nations like USA and China are engaged in verbal spat and blame game, India has filled the deep void in collective leadership by rendering assistance to China, Iran, Nepal etc. India spear-headed the formation of SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund, where India pledged a donation of $1 million. India agreed to export Hydroxychloroquine ,an anti-malaria drug believed to be effective in the treatment of novel corona-virus, to USA.

   History has shown us that whenever there is a situation like a pandemic, world witnesses large scale and long-lasting disruptions in supply chain. There is a torrent of suspicion and resentment against China in Europe and America, which is so palpable that China cannot easily rebound. This Covid-19 is turning out to be public relations disaster for China, which has the potential for sapping demand for Chinese goods. One such example is U.K. getting rid of Huawei in their 5G program . Chinese Auto manufacturers and Chemical plants have reported closures. Electronics and Pharmaceutical supply chains have been severely disrupted.

    The world now, may look for alternatives and the companies might be looking to diversify their vendors and supply chains. So, in an increasingly competitive world, India must link itself to the part of value chain best suited to it and must capitalize on China’s loss. Even India’s Prime Minister recently said India should promote ‘Make In India’ by utilizing this crisis as an opportunity to make India less dependent.

People must focus on Electronics manufacturing such as T.V, refrigerators etc, Auto components, Medical Equipments like ventilators etc, Electric vehicles, Organic clothes, Natural dyes, Hosiery cloth, Carpets, Leather goods and Engineering exports etc. We can speed up the transition to digital economy, as online platforms have become the only way to teach students these days.

    Even government must approach this issue with the clear strategy. Regulatory changes must be made for enabling Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) to grow, as informal sector doesn’t have adequate growth opportunities and priority sector lending system incentives SME’s to stay small. We need to change this mindset of ‘small is beautiful’. Small needs to grow because they are the biggest providers of employment. India must tap it’s demographic dividend to its advantage by reducing the red-tapism. We can leverage our economy, as India is highly under leveraged, by increasing it’s debt-to-GDP ratio.

  India has influencing power to bring consensus among all nations to fight against common enemy ,COVID-19. India has always followed the principle of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, a sanskrit phrase found in Maha Upanishad, which means ‘The world is one family’ and in this situation , we must carry the same legacy, so as to fully exploit our soft-power status.

  World is at crossroads. We must see opportunities like these as sunrises. If we wait too long, we miss them. It could be the moment to recapture space and not cede anything to China or any other country. We can’t go back and change the beginning but we can start where we are and change the ending.


E-Hearings – The New Normal That We Must Embrace

Written by Ayush Sarna, Advocate at Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Looking at the scenario, amid pandemic of COVID-19, which has urged the adoption of ‘social distancing’ and ‘work from home’ policies, courts around the world have not allowed the wheels of justice to stop churning. Judges are now hearing urgent matters through ‘video-conferencing’ from the confines of their homes and realising its benefits in the process.

     Supreme Court, while adopting the concept of virtual hearing or e-hearing, has directed the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to ensure availability of Personal Protective Equipments (PPE’s) to all health workers. Whereas High Courts like Kerala and Punjab and Haryana have upheld the decision of allowing shops selling essentials to remain open during the lockdown, by making use of this platform.

    E-hearing is a part of the E-court system, which is a mission mode project, started for computerisation and digitisation of judicial activities, being implemented by National Informatics Centre (NIC). It makes use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enabled infrastructure of courts, to make justice delivery system affordable and accessible.

    Virtual Hearings can lessen the burden on conventional courts by reducing the backlog of cases and also by disposing the cases during strikes or during situations like Covid-19 induced lockdown. It will ensure timely disposal of cases, as culture of repeated adjournments will reduce. It intends to improve people’s access to justice, as people from the remotest part of the country can have access to judicial system via video conferencing and also reducing congestion in courts.

   Adopting this platform would help in getting appropriate information, which is carefully recorded and stored, in a short span of time and thereby restoring the faith of people in judiciary. It addresses the issue of shortage of judges, as there are 19 judges per million people in the country against the world benchmark of 50 judges per million people. It gives the litigants a chance to resort to lawyer of their choice, rather than requiring them to find a local lawyer.

    Being an arena, which was till now uncharted territory, teething problems are bound to arise. There are concerns with respect to the safety and confidentiality of documents being shared via a virtual platform, as it is susceptible to online hacking. India still doesn’t have comprehensive data protection and privacy legislation. Another concern is digital illiteracy, especially in rural areas, where internet penetration is still less. There is also considerable resistance to technology among older fogeys, due to lack of its understanding.

    To make optimal use of this platform, would entail lots of expenditure, giving us a financial concern. Trivial cases might increase, thereby burdening judiciary. There is a logistics challenge, as adequate bandwidth may not be available to the parties, which affects the clarity of both audio and video, during the course of virtual hearings. There is also a concern regarding witness tutoring (especially in trial courts), which may be in the form of reading out from a script that may have been prepared prior to the hearing or following instructions from a third party during the testimony.

     In order to make this technology an enabler of justice delivery system and not a tool for the social distancing of human beings from each other, people must be sympathetic to the technological and other difficulties that may be experienced. There is a need for a robust security system, where audio or video conference links are protected from the security breach, only accessible by authorised persons. Data privacy rules must be made, which sets out the manner in which data is gathered, processed, stored and consequences of its breach. Endeavours must be made to fasten the digitalisation of the rural landscape. There is a need for skill training of judges and advocates for effective virtual hearing.

    India may consider referring to the Seoul Protocol on Video Conferencing in International Arbitration, enforced in march 2020, which specifies transmission speed and also provides that all logistics setup and technical assistance is to be provided prior to the commencement of the video conference. Its venue shall allow a reasonable part of the interior of the room to be shown along with the reasonable distance from the witness, to address the issue of witness tutoring. Facilitation centres must be utilised for E-filing and video conferencing.

    Uniform protocol and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) must be specified. Supreme Court has recently issued a comprehensive SOP in  April 2020 which includes directions where only one party must address the party, the opposite party may raise the hand in case of any objection, both parties remain on mute unless directed otherwise by the court etc.

    Supreme court has appointed E-Committee under Justice DY Chandrachud, which recommends that the use of this technology must be institutionalised even when the lockdown is lifted and normalcy returns. It recommends the recordings to be hosted on court websites the next day of e-hearing, which will ensure that people have access to court proceedings. It emphasises virtual courts, not only for traffic challans but also for promptly dealing with summary violations. In order to address the financial constraint challenge, budget of Phase 2 (2015-19) E-Court project, maybe utilised till a dedicated budget is earmarked by the state.

    Thirst of a mindset of the 21st century, cannot be quenched with 20th-century technology. Therefore, the endeavour must be made to prepare for a change, which may not be as smooth, but still strive to bestow to the future generations, the legacy of a wonderful legal system, where E-hearings are no longer an option for unusual circumstances but a reality of a daily practice that we have embraced.