The Gujarat high court on Wednesday ordered the state government to come up with a notification, making it mandatory for those violating the face mask rule to do community service at COVID-19 centres as a punishment in addition to the fine imposed on them.
A division bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice J B Pardiwala said the community service at COVID-19 centres shall be non-medical in nature and shall be for four-six hours for a period of 5 to 15 days, as authorities deem it fit and necessary.
The HC also asked the government to widely publicise this in the media so it could have a 'desirable deterrent effect', noting that a person not wearing a mask is not only putting himself at risk, but putting the community at risk.
"Hence, the said violator must extend services to the community which is put at risk," the court said.
It said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases can largely be attributed to the negligence and recklessness of the public at large in not maintaining the social distancing norms and not diligently and strictly wearing face masks/coverings.
As a matter of fact, many scientific studies have called the face mask/covering as a 'vaccine' for the virus.
In such times, there is a great need to instill a habit amongst people to wear face masks, in order to protect the health of the people at large, it said.
"We are of the view that the State must come out with a policy or order directing that all those caught not wearing face cover/mask shall be listed for community service and their services be taken depending upon the nature of service such violators can extend," the court said.
"We accordingly direct the State to forthwith come up with the notification under the relevant statutes providing that in addition to imposition of fine, any person found not wearing face cover/mask to render community service," it said.
The court also termed as 'unfortunate' the state government's failure to take a stand on the issue, considering that it is the state which is required to act in the most proactive manner in such times, it said.
"The stand of the state has left us with no option but to issue certain directions, considering the gravity and enormity of the situation...the foundation of the existence of the state lies in protecting its people and making the best possible efforts for their well being," it said.
The order came on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the court's direction to make community service at COVID-19 centres mandatory for face mask rule violators.
The PIL, filed by advocate Vishal Awtani, said many people were found violating the rule, resulting in a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The court in its order said, 'Any person found not wearing or using face mask cover in a public place and/or violating the COVID protocol of social distance shall be mandated to do community service at any COVID centre run by local authorities.'
'Such mandate of community service to be implemented for all violators without any discrimination, favourable or otherwise,' it said.
'These duty should be non-medical in nature and can include activities such case cleaning, housekeeping, help in cooking and serving food, preparation of record, data feeding, etc,' it said.
The nature of the duties given shall be appropriately decided by authorities, considering the age, qualifications, gender and health status of the violator, the court said.
The court observed that a person not wearing a face cover/mask is not only putting himself at risk, but is also putting people near and around him or in close contact with him at risk.
'In effect, he is putting the community at risk and therefore, in line with the concept and in principle of community service, the said violator must extend services to the community which is put at risk,' the court added.
On Tuesday, the government in its reply to the court on the issue said it was unable to come up with a viable mechanism or modalities as to how to utilise the services of violators for community service at COVID-19 centres.
The PIL had sought 10 to 15 days of non-medical community service for face mask rule violators, in addition to increase in the fine such people to Rs 2,000 from Rs 1,000 in the state's four largest cities -- Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot.
The state government in August increased the fine for face mask rule violators to Rs 1,000 on the HC's direction.