On May 28, the Centre submitted before the Supreme Court that it has sent ninety – seven lakh migrant workers home since May 1 and it will not stop its efforts until all migrant labourers who are stranded across the country are sent back to their respective homes. Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta who was appearing for the Centre said that apart from the ninety – lakh workers who have been sent home, three thousand seven hundred special trains will be operating till May 27. The Solicitor General also said that the pandemic is “an unprecedented crisis” and the Central government is taking “unprecedented measures” to deal with it. He added that the Centre will not stop its efforts until all of them are sent home. The three – judge bench which was headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan and was also comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice MR Shah took suo – motu cognizance of the hardships and difficulties of the migrant labourers who were stuck in different parts of the country due to the lockdown on May 26.
The three- judge bench had discussed various difficulties that were being faced by the migrant labourers who are stuck in different parts of the country and had asked the Solicitor General to produce on record on May 28, the measures taken by the government to ease the sufferings of the migrants. The Supreme Court relied on various newspaper articles and media reports to highlight the kind of hassles that are being faced by the migrant labourers to go back home. These problems ranged from starvation to walking long – distances barefoot to cycling long distances. The Apex Court said that there were “certain inadequacies and lapses” on the part of the government in terms of the steps that were taken by them for the welfare of the migrant labourers and ordered the Central government to provide food, shelter and other fundamental necessities to the migrant labourers who were found walking home.
On May 28, the apex court emphasized upon the need of a concrete policy because there have been a lot of instances where one state is sending the migrants to another state but the receiving state is not accepting them. The Solicitor General while taking a note of this said that the states are co-operating with each other and such a situation has not arisen where a state has refused entry to migrants. The bench sought clarification about the payment of train fare of the migrants who are returning back to their native states. The Solicitor General replied that either the receiving or originating state pays and the pricing of the tickets has been left to the states since the pricing cannot be centralized at a central level. The bench then stressed upon the need for a consistent and tangible policy with respect to the train fares. It also raised pertinent questions regarding the waiting interval after registration of their journey and the time span which is needed for transporting the migrants. The top court also passed a bunch of significant directions in the form of an interim order after the hearing such as: not charging the fares of trains and buses from the migrant workers, the railway fare being shared by the states as per their arrangement and neither the State nor the Railways are to charge any fare from the migrant workers, the migrant workers being provided with free food by the concerned state and UT and the same being notified to the migrants who are waiting for their turn to board the train or bus, the migrant workers being provided with a meal and water by the originating state at the beginning of the journey and by the railways during the journey, food and water is also to be provided to the migrant workers in buses, the process of registration for the migrant workers is to be simplified and the speed of registration needs to be increased, states are to provide help desk for registration at places where they are stranded, states are to make sure that the migrants board the transport after registration as soon as possible, those migrant workers found walking on the roads are to be immediately taken to shelters, provided food and all provisions and after the migrants reach their native place, they are to be provided with health screening, transport and other provisions free of cost by the receiving state.
Before the Supreme Court, many High Courts had taken suo – motu cognizance of the violation of the fundamental rights of the migrant workers in their respective states. They have been very pro – active in dealing with this humanitarian crisis. The lockdown was announced in lieu of the rapid spread of the deadly Corona virus. It sent shock – waves across the country but it is the migrant labourers who have been brought to their knees by the catastrophic aftermath of the global pandemic which has severely affected the Indian economy. In hindsight, it is not a surprise that the migrant labourers have to bear the burden of the lethal virus. The lack of social security, health insurance, negligible wages and many other factors which have existed for years have also contributed in the misery of the migrant labourers. It has not only stirred nation – wide outrage but it has also jolted the government authorities both at the State(s) and the Central level who were not prepared for the devastating impact of the lockdown on the poor migrant labourers. The judiciary has taken a step in the right direction by intervening and taking suo – motu cognizance of the plight of the migrant workers. Judicial activism is a powerful tool to mitigate the distress of the poor and the oppressed and how to keep those in power in check. But at the same time, there is a dire need for revamping and refining the existing legal framework to protect the rights of the migrant and non – migrant workers.
ADITI BHATT – VIVEKANANDA INSTITUTE OF PROFESSIONAL STUDIES (THINK INDIA HRDI INTERNSHIP)