New Delhi: The humanitarian crisis of migrant workers walking back hundreds of miles to their homes has dominated headlines since the nationwide lockdown was imposed on 25 March to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The death of 16 migrants in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad after being run over by a goods train, and of 24 migrant workers in an accident in the Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh this month prompted several PILs before the Supreme Court as well as the high courts.
However, the apex court Friday dismissed an application seeking directions to all district magistrates across India to identify walking labourers and to ensure that they reach their native places, free of cost.
Even as the court observed that it was not possible for it to “monitor” the situation, the same day, the Madras, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi high courts issued directions to the central and state governments demanding several measures for these labourers.
Over the past two months, at least 12 high courts have issued directions on the migrant crisis, some taking note of the situation suo motu, while others springing into action on petitions filed before it.
‘One cannot control his tears’
On Friday, the Madras High Court made scathing remarks against the authorities, taking note of migrant labourers walking back to their native states amid the lockdown. Calling it a human tragedy, the court said, “One cannot control his/her tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers shown in the media for the past one month.”
The order also made remarks on the migrant labourers being “neglected by all the authorities” and that “no steps were taken by the Governments” to help them.
It then suo motu directed the central government and the Tamil Nadu government to submit an action taken report on the measures being taken for welfare of migrant workers amid the Covid-19 lockdown.
A bench comprising Justice N. Kirubakaran and R. Hemalatha also listed 12 questions to be answered by the central and state government. These included data on the migrant workers stranded in every state, the assistance being provided to them, the number of migrant workers who died on their way to their home states, the compensation for the families of the deceased migrant workers, and the assistance being provided to those who have returned to their native states.
The matter will next be heard on 22 May.
‘Court would be failing in its role if it doesn’t react’
The Andhra Pradesh High Court also issued a slew of directions Friday to ensure availability of basic amenities on the road for walking migrants.
“If at this stage, this Court does not react and pass these orders, this Court would be falling in its role as a protector and alleviator of suffering. Their pain has to be alleviated at this stage… They deserve more help particularly when they are trekking back with their heads high instead of living at someone’s mercy,” it observed.
It then issued directions to the state government for labourers walking on the highways, including adequate food arrangements, drinking water, glucose packets, temporary toilet facilities, and sanitary pad dispensing machines.
The court also sought measures to be taken in shelter homes, including presence of trained paramedical volunteers or doctors at every centre. A compliance report is to be filed by 22 May.
Migrant helplines numbers should work uninterrupted
The Delhi High Court Friday directed the Arvind Kejriwal government to ensure uninterrupted working of the helpline numbers set up to enable the return of migrant workers to their native places.
The court also directed the nodal officers in each district to remain easily available to migrant workers, so that the procedure after the online registration for their travel to their native states takes place smoothly.
The order was issued on a PIL filed by the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour seeking proper the functioning of the mechanism set up by the Delhi government for sending them back to their native states.
‘Not Covid-19, poor afraid of dying of starvation’
Last week, the Gujarat High Court also took suo motu cognisance of the crisis and ordered the state government to come up with “concrete plans” to alleviate the difficulties being faced by the migrant labourers and daily wage earners.
In doing so, the bench took note of some “very disturbing, painful and heartbreaking” reports chronicling the difficulties being faced by labourers, and said that the poor are “not afraid” of Covid-19, but “are afraid that they would die due to starvation”.
The court called for a “more humane approach or touch” to combat the situation. It observed, “Everyday hundreds of migrant workers with small children are to be seen in different parts of the state, more particularly on the highways. Their condition is pathetic. As on date, they are living in the most inhumane and horrendous conditions.”
‘Long walk and hunger proving fatal for migrants’
On 8 May, the Karnataka High Court asked the state government to inform the court about the arrangement of special trains for migrants. It said the state’s policy should take care of all categories of migrant workers – those in shelter homes, streets, shelters provided by their employers or on their own.
“…it cannot be disputed that many such migrants have lost their lives because of the accidents on the roads and on railway tracks. In some cases, as a result of undertaking a long walk and hunger, migrants have lost their lives,” it added.
The observations were made on a petition filed by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, which had approached the court earlier this month after the Karnataka government decided on 5 May to stop all special trains to ferry stranded labourers to their respective states. However, following an uproar against the government’s decision, it resumed the services two days later.
Free essentials, healthcare needs
In addition to these, the Kerala High Court has been monitoring the steps taken by the state government to provide food and shelter for “guest workers” since last month.
The Orissa and Bombay high courts also took suo motu cognisance of the migrant crisis, with the former ordering the state government to arrange food, shelter and medical facilities for migrants. However, Bombay HC had deferred the hearing last month, taking note of similar issues pending in the Supreme Court.
Additionally, last month, the Himachal Pradesh High Court asked the state government to file an action-taken report on the steps taken to address the challenges being faced by migrant labourers. This order referred to an order passed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in March, directing the UT administrations of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh to ensure that “accommodation, healthcare and the needs of the migrant labourers, if not already provided for, are addressed”.
Earlier this month, the Telangana High Court directed the State Civil Supplies Commissioner to ensure that all the poor, including the migrant labourers, tribals and those who do not have white ration cards, get free rice and other essentials. It has since sought to know the steps being for providing shelter and other facilities to migrant labourers and also pulled up the government when it filed a “vague” report on shelter homes.
Last week, the Uttarakhand High Court followed suit and gave the state government 24 hours to file its response on the measures it has taken to alleviate the miseries of 40,000 migrant workers in Uttarakhand and to detail the steps taken under the National Food Security Act, 2013.