The Supreme Court Monday dismissed a plea seeking restrictions on devotees in this year's Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage due to COVID-19 pandemic, saying these issues fall within the "domain of the executive arm of the state".
The apex court said the issue as to whether Amarnath Yatra 2020 should or should not be held is a matter which must be left to the "competence of the local administration" and any decision that is arrived at has to be "based on law and on relevant statutory provisions holding the field".
A bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud observed that the principle of separation of powers requires that administrative decisions "must be taken where they are entrusted, namely by the executive arm of the state".
The top court passed the order while hearing a plea filed by 'Shri Amarnath Barfani Langars Organisation' (SABLO) which had sought a direction to the Centre, Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board to restrict access of pilgrims in the Yatra this year in wake of coronavirus outbreak.
"Entertaining a writ petition under Article 32 at this stage would necessarily involve this court taking over an executive function of oversight over the local administration. We decline to exercise the jurisdiction under Article 32 to take over these powers under the rubric of judicial review," the bench, also comprising Justices Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph, said.
"We have to respect principle of separation of powers," the bench orally observed during the hearing, while refusing to entertain the plea which had also sought a direction for 'live darshan' of Lord Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine by way of the internet and on television.
In its order, the bench said the decision as to whether a pilgrimage should be permitted and, if it is permitted, the safeguards which should be observed, are matters which fall within the domain of the executive.
"In arriving at a decision, the administrative authorities must bear in mind statutory provisions governing the field and policies and administrative circulars issued in pursuance of statutory provisions. An assessment of the situation will be based on ground realities. This assessment lies in the domain of the administrative functions of the state," the bench said.
It said the duty of court is to step in where the decision-making process is flawed by a failure to observe statutory or constitutional requirements and is either contrary to law or failure to take a decision results in a breach of a statutory duty or a fundamental right.
"Once a decision is taken, its validity can be tested on procedural and substantive grounds including proportionality and manifest arbitrariness. The power to take a decision on whether a pilgrimage should take place in a given situation lies with the executive arm of the state," it said.
The bench dealt with the contention of senior advocate Devdutt Kamat, appearing for the petitioner, that the top court had earlier put restrictions on the Puri Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath.
The apex court later modified the order to allow Rath Yatra at Puri, the bench said during the hearing.
Referring to the order passed in Puri Rath Yatra matter, the bench said it indicated that order of restraint was premised on the information furnished to the court by the authorities that it was "well nigh impossible to ensure that there is no congregation."
"It was on the basis of the affidavit that was filed by the state of Odisha and on the proposal of the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration that the modification was issued, subject to conditions," the bench noted while referring that order was later modified to allow the holding of Puri Rath Yatra.
"This only goes to emphasise that the decision turned upon the view which was taken by the administration of the exigencies of the situation and on whether the religious congregation arising out of the procession at Puri could proceed in a safe and orderly manner," it said.
Dealing with the issue raised in the plea concerning this year's Amarnath Yatra, the bench said, "The issue as to whether the Amarnath Yatra 2020 should or should not be held is a matter must be left to the competence of the local administration."
It said the court will step in where parameters for judicial review arise.
"The petitioners are at liberty to provide such inputs as they may be advised to furnish having regard to their experience of assisting in the pilgrimage in the past," the bench said.
During the hearing, the bench observed, "We are ill-equipped to determine whether a Yatra should be held in a particular terrain or not."
The Jammu and Kashmir administration, on July 5, had decided to permit Amarnath Yatra by restricting the number of pilgrims to 500 per day by road from Jammu to the 3,880-metre-high cave shrine.
The Shrine Board is reportedly planning to allow the yatra for a period of 15 days only.
The move was challenged by SABLO in the top court saying it will not be possible to carry out the norms of physical distancing, wearing of masks and other steps to prevent COVID-19 transmission at high altitudes.
Kamat said during the hearing that the organization was not against the conduct of rituals pertaining to Yatra, but was only seeking to restrict participation of people from all over the country. The petitioner also sought for allowing live-telecast of the rituals. PTI ABA MNL SJK ABA RKS