The police curfew imposed in the high-risk zones of the Colombo and Gampaha Districts is to continue until further notice, while in the other 23 districts it will be lifted at 5am and re-imposed at 8pm daily. The curfew, imposed on March 20 as one of the measures adopted to curb the spread of the coronavirus or COVID-19, has been relaxed to a large extent as a fillip to resuscitate or resurrect the country’s stalled economy. Notwithstanding the curfew, which is in force in Colombo and Gampaha, employees were permitted to travel by train or by SLTB buses to their work places with their work-place identity cards as proof of employment.
The increasing number of COVID-19 infected patients and people rushing out of their homes on one pretext or the other now that the curfew has been relaxed will not make the job of health authorities any easier, though it has issued guidelines to be followed by public and private sector institutions to safeguard their employees and those visiting supermarkets and other outlets that sell essential food items and medicinal drugs. This time around there did not appear to be any rush at these outlets, probably because of the opportunity to purchase various household requirements via online service providers. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the public must be mindful that Sri Lanka is not out of the woods just yet, and that they need to take whatever precautions necessary to safeguard themselves and their neighbours. When out on the streets, make it a point to avoid gatherings, maintain physical distancing, wear face masks and cooperate with health authorities and security forces personnel, all the while being aware of the truism that it is better to be safe rather than to be sorry.
Be that as it may, the thinking among political analysts is that the relaxing of the curfew could be a precursor for the general election. It was initially fixed for April 25 by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he dissolved Parliament on March 2 with May 14 as the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament. But COVID-19, which invaded Sri Lanka while wreaking havoc the world over, compelled the Election Commission (EC) to decide otherwise. After much deliberations and under pressure from the government to fix an early date to hold the general election, the EC postponed it to June 20 based on the inroads made by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, several fundamental rights (FR) petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court (SC) challenging the viability of holding the general election on June 20 as decided by the three-member EC. Among those who filed the FR petitions were Attorney-at-Law Charitha Maithri Guneratne, Senior Journalist Victor Ivan, T.M. Premawardana, Prof. Anton Meemana, A.M Jiffry, S. Sivagurunathan, Mahinda Hattaka, M.S Jayakodi and Dr. H.D.S.F.D. Herath, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Patali Champika Ranawaka and Nawa Lanka Freedom Party (NLFP) leader Kumara Welgama. The following were cited as respondents in some or all of the petitions: Election Commission’s three members, Mahinda Deshapriya (Chairman), N. J. Abeysekera PC and Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole; Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Attorney General Dappula de Livera.
An SC bench of three-judges comprising Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and Justices Murdu Fernando and Yasantha Kodagoda fixed May 18 and 19 to take up the petitions for support for leave to proceed. The petitioners are also seeking Courts to quash the gazette issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 2 dissolving Parliament on the basis that the new Parliament cannot meet within the three-month deadline as stipulated by the Constitution in the wake of the general election being postponed to June 20 on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
The petitions filed under Article 126 of the Constitution challenging the presidential proclamation state that any attempt to exercise the powers of Government without Parliamentary oversight for an indefinite period of time would amount to a violation of the Constitution and its principles of the separation of powers and the need to have in place all three organs of Government – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.
No matter what the SC ruling might be, we emphasise the need for the government to act in a manner that would prioritise the health of the people rather than to base its decisions on political expediency.