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Strike action by doctors in the sights of the Supreme Court

Indian Doctor standing with stethoscope on India flag background. National healthcare system concept, medical theme.Strike action by doctors has found itself in the crosshairs of the Supreme Court, who have appealed to the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Government of India on the subject. 

Numerous instances of nationwide strike action by doctors have been witnessed in India this year, with reasons varying from violence against them and a perceived lack of security in the workplace to controversies surrounding the National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill. Against this context, a plea filed before the Supreme Court has called for doctors to be held liable if they go on strike, pointing to prior Supreme Court orders discouraging strike action by the medical fraternity.

“The unfortunate chronology of events related to the frequent doctors’ strikes in India holding the defenceless patients at ransom despite repeated calls against it from the apex court and High Court demonstrate the overtly reckless, uncaring, immoral and unlawful attitude of our medical leaders, in particular by the leaders of IMA,” said the plea, filed by NGO ‘People for Better Treatment’. “The contemnors [IMA] herein, being the largest medical group in India, and [the] Ministry of Health, are absolutely liable for the deliberate and blatant breach and disobedience of the November, 2014 order of the Supreme Court.”

The plea adds, “in spite of the repeated and clear calls from the highest court of the land, doctors across India have continued to resort to strike disrupting regular hospital services and bringing endless pain, suffering and death for the hapless patients.”

The order in question seems to reference a judgement issued in November 2014 by Supreme Court bench headed by then-Chief Justice H. L. Dattu, responding to a public interest litigation filed by the same NGO. “Being God’s agent, they [doctors] should not go on strike,” they said. 

“We can express our desire. Beyond that, positive directions cannot be issued particularly when we know it would be difficult to implement our order.” Dattu further said that “there is no point in issuing directions. We should not pass any order which can’t be implemented.” As such, the Court said “relief sought is commendable but difficult to grant. Therefore, we express our desire that doctors are saviours of life, they should not resort to illegal strikes.”

In response to the latest plea, the Supreme Court bench – consisting of Chief Justice Chief Justice S. A. Bobde and Justices B. R. Gavai and Surya Kant – said that the treatment of critically ill patients should not be affected under any circumstance, calling for continuance of care to those patients including those admitted to intensive care units to be guaranteed. A response to the plea has been sought from both the IMA and the Government of India.

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