New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday ordered the Centre and states not to charge either train fare or bus fee from migrant workers, who are keen to go back to their native towns.
The direction was part of multiple measures the court gave out to tackle the migrant crisis that erupted after a nationwide lockdown was imposed on 25 March to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“There are several lapses that we have noticed in the process of registration, transportation and providing food, water to the migrants. It is seen that even after registration, migrants have to wait for a long time for their turns to come. Large number of migrants are still proceeding by foot, though solicitor general says there are instructions to states to facilitate a bus or vehicle, if any migrants are seen walking on foot,” said a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, S.K. Kaul and M.R. Shah in the order.
The court on 26 May took suo motu cognisance of the crisis, weeks after it refrained from entertaining a public interest litigation on the problems of migrant labourers stranded in different parts of the country.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was present on behalf of the central government at the hearing held through video-conferencing, urged the court to refrain from issuing comprehensive directions. He requested the bench wait for the Centre’s response. Mehta felt the order might encourage more people to move.
States, railways to feed migrants
Despite Mehta’s objections, the court went on to issue directions. It said all migrant workers stranded shall be provided food by the state and Union Territory concerned for the period that is spent in waiting for their turn to board the train, the court said. Adequate publicity needs to be made for such a facility, it added.
It clarified that migrant workers should be given food by the state from where the train originates before the start of the rail journey. Railways authorities will have to provide food and water during the journey. Similarly, the court said, food and water will be provided in buses.
States should also oversee registration of migrant workers and ensure they are made to board the train or bus at an early date, the court said, adding the government must give adequate publicity to the steps it proposes to take on this account.
Those who are found walking on the roads shall be taken to shelters immediately and provided food, the court said.
The directions also included asking states to bring on record necessary details regarding the number of migrants waiting for a transport, plan for transportation and registration of the labourers.
It also ordered the railways to provide trains when a state asks for it to transport migrants. The court will now hear the matter on 5 June, once it receives the responses.
Govt’s argues court order will encourage more migrants to move
Solicitor General Mehta said there was no dearth of trains and every request is being taken.
“We are already doing all this,” he told the bench and expressed the Centre’s reservations that by asking states to provide immediate food and shelter to migrants found walking, it might encourage more people to move.
Mehta asserted there was a national plan to handle the crisis and even states had drawn out their own measures. But the bench said the directions were needed to help those who want to go back home.
“Right now we need information. We believe that Centre and states require to be given some more time to bring the steps taken by them on record. At present we are looking at the miseries of migrant workers. Therefore, we are of the view that some interim directions need to be issued,” said the bench, addressing Mehta’s concerns.
The court recorded in its order that though the Centre and states have taken steps to mitigate the hardships, there were several lapses that required its intervention.
“We are currently concerned with all migrant workers who are keen to go back to their native states,” the Supreme Court said.
‘Prophets of doom criticising govt’
Mehta strongly argued against the court entertaining several intervention applications filed in the matter. He said the Centre was doing a lot to alleviate the suffering of migrant workers, yet some “prophets of doom” were choosing to criticise the government.
“Centre is doing a lot to prevent Covid-19 but there are prophets of doom in our country who only spread negativity, negativity, negativity. These arm chair intellectuals do not recognise the nation’s effort,” Mehta said.
Drawing a comparison with the Pulitzer-winning photograph of a vulture waiting for a malnourished child to die, taken in Sudan in 1983, Mehta said, “A journalist had asked him (photographer) what happened to the child. He said. ‘I don’t know, I had to return home’. Then the reporter asked him, ‘How many vultures were there?’ He said one. The reporter said. ‘No. There were two. One was holding the camera’.”
“If a handful of people want to control the situation, then it will become an ADM Jabalpur moment. All these people wanting to intervene need to apply the vulture and child story. What have they contributed?” Mehta questioned, asking the court to seek an affidavit from all the intervenors to show their contribution to the situation.
The solicitor also accused the state high courts of running parallel governments.
At a later point, Mehta also addressed senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was appearing for the Delhi Shramik Sangathan, one of the intervenors, and asked him not to convert the court into a political platform.
“Before addressing, please speak about your contribution,” he said.
At this Sibal replied, “A lot … don’t make it personal.” Mehta clarified he was speaking about Sibal’s client.
Migrants walking despite govt efforts
Mehta said 50 lakh migrants travelled back home between 1 May and 27 May in 3,700 Shramik special trains. Fourty-one lakh workers took the bus facility to go back home.
Mehta outlined the protocol followed to transport migrants and said each state has its own policy on quarantine. Some states have adopted a novel approach to convince the migrants for quarantine. Citing Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he said the states pay Rs 1,000 per head to those who scrupulously follow the quarantine period.
Distribution of train tickets is done after the states (host and home) coordinate with each other and draw up the probable list, he said. Initially, some states did charge for the tickets, but the money was later reimbursed to the migrants when they arrived at the destination state.
“In spite of the above referred system in place and approximately 97-98 per cent workers using it, some, either due to lack of information or due to anxiety or in many cases due to local instigation to leave the urban areas, started walking on the road,” Mehta said.