The Union health ministry on Thursday distanced itself from police personnel in Indian cities going on an overdrive, prosecuting people for not wearing a mask even when they are alone in a car, jogging or cycling.
Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan told a news conference in response to a question that there was no directive from the health ministry that people should wear masks when they are driving a car without any co-passengers.
Bhushan said the health ministry also has not directed people cycling, exercising and jogging alone to wear a mask. But he pointed out that people often carried out these activities in groups of two or more. In such cases, Bhushan said, people are required to wear a mask.
The top health ministry official’s effort to distance itself from the police action comes against the backdrop of reports from several cities that police personnel, tasked to enforce the law on masks to ensure the virus that causes coronavirus does not spread, were also penalising people travelling alone. Many have questioned the logic for the rule.
Still need to wear a mask
It is not clear if the police will stop prosecuting motorists travelling alone without a mask. Because it wasn’t the health ministry, but the Union home ministry order that mandated people to wear a mask when they step out.
According to the home ministry’s National Directive for Covid-19 Management, “Wearing of face cover is compulsory in public places; in workplaces; and during transport”. This all-encompassing directive allows the police to prosecute people without masks, even if alone in a car with the windows rolled up. It doesn’t matter that you can’t catch Covid-19 from yourself.
A car on the road comes within the definition of a public place. Else, people wouldn’t be prosecuted for consumption of liquor in cars parked near liquor vends. In 2019, the Supreme Court had also ruled that a car on a public road can be treated as a public place.
On social media, the move to prosecute motorists is seen as a ham-handed approach that police personnel across the country were accused of adopting during the lockdown. Like when they kept on blocking inter-state goods transport for weeks despite several requests from Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla.
In Delhi, the police appeared to have initially taken the stand that there was no need for motorists travelling alone to wear a mask. But somewhere down the line, as reflected in tweets from the Delhi Traffic Police’s handle, the cops tweaked their stand.
What led to the change in stance between June 29 and August 21 is not clear. There has been no other statement by a senior Delhi Police officer.
There are no figures in the public domain to indicate how much people have paid in fines for driving their vehicle without a mask. In all, Delhi Police has collected a whopping Rs 9.42 crore from at least 1.8 lakh people in the national capital for not wearing masks in public.
According to Delhi Police, the penalty for not wearing a mask is a Rs 500 on-the-spot fine under a rule passed by the Delhi government under the Delhi Epidemic Diseases, (Management of Covid-19) Regulations, 2020, approved by the Delhi L-G in June.
In Bengaluru, the local authorities set up a technical panel to report if they should continue prosecuting people without masks in their car. N Manjunatha Prasad, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike commissioner, announced the committee on August 26. Prasad hasn’t tweeted about the outcome of this review. – Hindustan Times