A conscious effort by the Tamil Nadu government to sidestep the judicial process seems to have triggered the latest protests by nurses of government hospitals and students of government-run nursing colleges.
Though innocuously worded, the order issued by the health and family welfare department on January 18 permitting nursing students from private colleges to compete for appointment in government hospitals, has a long and complex legal history.
The order was issued though a special leave petition on the matter is pending before the Supreme Court, and a specially-constituted three-judge bench of the Madras high court too is seized of the matter. When the issue has not yet attained finality in judicial forums, what was the urgency to come out with such an order, ask jurists.
The government order partially answers the query. It says the government was "receiving a constant stream of petitions" from candidates from private nursing schools/colleges. It also says the order's validity is subject to the outcome of the SLP in the SC. But it does not mention that the issue is also pending a full bench of the HC comprising Justice Elipe Dharma Rao, Justice D Murugesan and Justice M Venugopal. The case last came up for hearing before the bench on September 9, 2011.
In 2006, a single judge of the high court ruled that private college students were entitled to be treated on a par with candidates from government nursing schools. On an appeal, a division bench set aside the order in April 2007.
The third round of litigation started when private nurses challenged the rule itself, which says that only nursing students from government colleges are eligible for appointment in government hospitals.
After a single judge dismissed their plea, appeals were filed before a division bench in Madurai. The bench directed the authorities to consider the applications of private students for appointment in government institutions.
This interim order of March 31, 2011 was confirmed by the bench on June 23, 2011.
Government college students successfully appealed against the order and got it set aside. Against this order, private nursing students filed an SLP in the SC, which stayed the division bench order on November 17, 2011. The apex court issued notice to the government as well.
The government, which was supposed to file its response before the SC as well as the HC, has, instead, chosen to come out with an order which forecloses the litigation before these courts. "What is the tearing hurry for the government to take sides with private institutions," asks a former law officer.
While referring the matter to be decided by a full bench, a judge had said that the existing scheme was not one of institutional preference favouring government nursing colleges, but a comprehensive scheme for training and appointing nurses.
For nurses, the entry point to GHs is admission in government nursing schools. The students and the government sign a bond, pledging stipend for students who would give an undertaking that they would work only in government hospitals