The nationwide lockdown announced on 25 March 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.
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.
Two PILs seeking basic amenities for migrant workers stranded in various parts of the country due to the lockdown were taken up by a Bench consisting of the Chief Justice and Justice L Nageswara Rao on 30 March. Upon hearing the petitioners, the Court directed the Union to inform it of the steps adopted to take care of these stranded workers. One of the petitions - Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India - seeks the following relief from the Court: "direct the local administration/ police authorities across India to immediately identify such moving/ stranded migrant workers and to immediately shift them to the nearest government shelter homes/ accommodations with proper food, water, medicines and under medical supervision, in a dignified manner, till the present Coronavirus Lockdown continues."
The Union was then directed to file its report by 31 March.
On 31 March, the Union filed a status report, apprising the Court of the various measures it had taken to help the stranded migrant labourers. Some of the important steps adopted by the Union, as per the report, include:
Upon satisfying itself of the steps taken by the Union, the Court passed a few directions. In particular, it noted that 'migration of a large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months'. In light of this, 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.
The Bench also directed the Union to deploy trained counsellors and/or community group leaders in the shelter camps where the migrant labourers are put up. The matter was then directed to be listed on 7 April.
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.
Alakh Alok Srivastava approached the Court again on 8 May, 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 Justices L Nageswara Rao, S K Kaul and B R Gavai. 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.
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 25 May 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.
Image Credits: Indian Judiciary - Annual Report 2018/19
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 Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah issued notice to the Central and State Governments. Two days later, on 28 May 2020, the Court took the responses of the State and Central Governments.
Several States and Union Territories filed their responses. The Union filed its preliminary reply. The Solicitor General (SG), Tushar Mehta took the Court through the various measures the Union and States had taken to ensure that the migrant workers faced no hurdles in relation to food, water, shelter and transport.
Transport: The SG submitted that no migrant worker was being charged for their journey back to their home states. He said that this was true of both rail and bus travel. In the case of rail travel, either the origin or destination state was bearing the costs, depending on the arrangement between the states in question. If at all the worker was charged, the costs were being reimbursed, submitted the SG.
Food and water: In the case of travel by road, the originating state was providing food and water, submitted the SG. In the case of rail travel, railways were providing the meals. Further, the destination states were taking steps to drop the workers to their homes.
Moreover, for those who were staying put in different parts of the country, the ration was being provided even if they did not have a ration card, noted the SG.
Shelter: Relief camps have been set up to provide food, water and stay for the workers.
Till date, the SG submitted that 50 lakh migrant workers had been transported by train and 41 lakhs by road.
Other than the SG, counsels for the States of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar also made submissions. Counsel for UP, Mr. Narsimha argued that the State had taken several measures to support workers. In particular, he pointed out that the State was giving Rs. 1000 along with a kit containing food and necessary items to all migrant workers when they go home after completion of quarantine.
Counsels appearing for various parties seeking to implead in the matter also made submissions. Sr.Adv. Kapil Sibal pointed out that minimum standards of relief in line with the Section 12 of National Disaster Management Act, 2005 had not been provided. He also submitted that no national/state plan as envisaged under the Act had been devised.
Sr. Adv Colin Gonsalves pointed out that the registration process for travel was cumbersome and inaccessible to the workers. Sr. Adv. Indira Jaising submitted that there were more than 4 crore migrant workers and more trains had to be arranged to transport them.
In his rejoinder, SG submitted that not all migrant workers were keen on returning home, with some of them willing to work at different places for their livelihood.
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. In the interim, it made the following directions:
Next, the Court on 9 June 2020 gave a detailed order and issued 8 directions to the Governments of the Centre, States and Union Territories. In addition to the directions issued on 28 May, the following directions would be in force:
The Court listed this case for the next hearing on 8 July 2020. It is likely to assess the performance of the Central and States Governments in implementing its directions.