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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Court on 9 June, 2020 gave a detailed order and issued 8 directions to the Governments of the Centre, States and Union Territories.
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.
In the order of the bench dated 9th July, 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 27th July, 2020 and allowed the parties three days to provide short notes.
The court cited the order passed on 9th June, 2020 and referred to the 3 enactments that States must necessarily register under in order to better facilitate relief to the migrant workers.
In the latest order dated 1st September, 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.
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.
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.
11th June, 2021: Court Emphasises Need for Registration and National Database
In the hearing on 11th June, Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R Shah 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.
29th June, 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.