COVID Coverage: Migrant Labourers

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a mass exodus of migrant workers eventually leading to the Court issuing orders for interim relief.

In Re: Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers SMWP (C) 6/2020


The nationwide lockdown announced on March 25th and subsequent extensions of it has left several migrant labourers stranded. With neither the economic capacity to survive the lockdown nor the means to travel, many labourers resorted to walking hundreds of kilometres back home. Many have died.

March 30th 2020: Petitions Before the Court

Since the beginning of the lockdown, various parties have filed Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petitions, seeking the Court to issue directions to the Union and States.


March 31st 2020: Providing Accurate Information to Citizenry- Vital

The Bench directed the Government of India to release a daily bulletin through all media avenues, including social media, to clear people’s doubts. The Bench also suggested that all media outlets carry the official version of COVID-19 related developments.


April 7th 2020

In April, Dr Jagdeep S Chhokar (Founder and Trustee, ADR) and Gaurav Jain filed a PIL that requested a direction to the Union and State Governments to arrange for the travel of stranded migrant workers to go back to their homes. However, nothing came of the PIL, as the petitioners ultimately decided to approach the High Courts instead.

May 8th 2020 

Alakh Alok Srivastava approached the Court again on May 8th, to file an Interim Application that highlighted the migrant labourer crisis. In particular, he cited the train accident in Aurangabad that led to the death of around 16 migrant labourers. He primarily sought the Court to direct District Magistrates across India to track the stranded migrant labourers and provide humanitarian assistance. The case came up before a three-judge bench of L Nageswara Rao, S K Kaul and B R Gavai JJ. The Court refused to interfere and remarked ‘How can we stop them from walking’. It left it for the State Governments to take this issue into consideration.

May 25th 2020: Suo Motu Cognizance

Meanwhile, the crisis intensified and prompted 20 Senior Advocates including P Chidambaram, Anand Grover, Indira Jaising, Mihir Desai among others to write a letter to the Supreme Court on May 25th 2020. This late-night letter asserted that the Court’s non-interference violated the fundamental rights of migrant labourers. They stressed that the plight of migrant labourers is not a mere ‘policy issue’, but a human rights crisis. The Advocates urged the Court to intervene and grant free transportation, food and shelter.

26th May, 2020

The next day the Supreme Court in In Re: Problems And Miseries Of Migrant Labourers took suo motu cognizance of the ‘problems and miseries of migrant labourers who had been stranded in different parts of the country.’ The three-judge bench of  Ashok BhushanSanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah  JJ issued notice to the Central and State Governments.

May 28th 2020: Court Seeks Detailed Report of Measures Taken

Upon hearing the counsels, the Court observed that while a number of measures were being taken to help the workers, they were not sufficient. It then directed the Union and State Governments to submit within a week the detailed report of the measures being taken to help the workers.


June 9th 2020: Directions on Management of Transportation, Collection of Data

The Court on June 9th 2020 gave a detailed order and issued 8 directions to the Governments of the Centre, States and Union Territories.


June 19th 2020

The court heard an Intervention Application on June 19th 2020. The application was listed to be heard with the main matter on July 8th 2020.

July 8th 2020

In the order of the bench dated July 9th 2020 the court reprimanded the State Government of Maharashtra for adopting an adversarial tone in their affidavit and for their inaction. They then noted the filing of an Interlocutory Application by Sarva Hara Jan Andolan and Delhi Sharmik Sangathan regarding migrants still awaiting return and relief.

The Court reserved judgement in an order dated  July 27th 2020 and allowed the parties three days to provide short notes.

July 31st 2020: Registration of Migrant Labourers by States

The court cited the order passed on June 9th 2020 and referred to the 3 enactments that States must necessarily register under in order to better facilitate relief to the migrant workers.


September 1st 2020

In the latest order dated September 1st 2020 the bench singled out the states of Maharashtra and Delhi for not filing their affidavits in compliance with the previous order. This is in spite of these two states having the largest concentration of migrant labourers. The criticized them, indicating that these states were not interested in implementing the enactments, before granting two weeks for the states of Maharashtra, Delhi and others to file their affidavit if they hadn’t yet.

May 13th 2021: Atmanirbhar Scheme, Community Kitchens and Transportation

In the order, the bench heavily criticizes the state governments for either not filing their responses or filing responses they deemed inadequate. 10 days-time was provided to the states of NCT of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Orissa to file their specific responses including the steps taken in pursuance to previous orders.


May 24th 2021: Creation of a Central Database for the Implementation of Schemes

In its Order, the Court stated that all migrants stranded must be provided dry ration under the Atma Nirbhar scheme or any other scheme. The Bench also stated that there needs to be a central database for the registration of migrant workers.


June 11th 2021: Court Emphasises Need for Registration and National Database

In the hearing on June 11th, Ashok Bhushan and M.R Shah JJ addressed the issue of unregistered migrant labourers, and their ability to avail benefits under the Atmanirbhar scheme, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna and the “One Nation One Ration Card” scheme.


June 29th 2021: Court Delivers Judgment

In its judgement, the Court noted that the onset of the second wave had put the migrant workers in the situation they were in March 2020. Observing that no Court intervention was required in arranging transportation for migrants in the second wave, the Court directed its attention to seven concerns: food and rations, workers’ rights and registration and direct bank transfers.