In this episode of SCO Explains, we talk about the on-going suo-moto case in which the Supreme Court is addressing the problems and miseries of migrant labourers who had been stranded in different parts of the country.


Supreme Court Observer · SCO Explains COVID 19 Migrant Workers Hearings



In the last episode the SCO Explains, we talked about the Supreme Court’s ongoing role in carving a national policy for the distribution of essential supplies and services during the pandemic. 


This case was one of many that we at the Supreme Court Observer are currently tracking to examine the Court's role in managing the crisis caused by the pandemic. 


In this episode, we will talk about the ongoing suo-moto case in which the Supreme Court is addressing the problems and miseries of migrant labourers who had been stranded in different parts of the country. Since the early days of the pandemic, we have heard accounts of migrant labourers being forced to make long journeys back to their home states due to the loss of livelihood in cities during the lockdown. This has led to widespread loss of life and safety, because the migrant workers have had to travel back on foot in many cases, without access to food, shelter or medical care. We will talk about how the court came to take cognizance of the matter, what the concerns of the case are, and what its effects have been in the past year. 


A three-judge bench consisting of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah took suo moto cognizance of this case on 26th May, 2020. Before this, since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, various parties had already filed Public Interest Litigation Petitions seeking the Court to direct the Central and State governments to act in aid of the migrant workers. Between March and May, the Court had maintained that it was satisfied with the action taken by the Central government in relation to this crisis, and would not interfere further. On May 8th, Alakh Ashok Srivastava, in an Interim Application,  cited the death of 16 migrant workers journeying back home after they were run over by a goods truck in Aurangabad and asked the Court to direct central and state governments to make transport arrangements for the migrant workers. At this stage, the court refused to interfere. 


On 25th May, in a late-night letter, a group of 20 Senior Advocates including P Chidambaram, Anand Grover, Indira Jaising and Mihir Desai expressed dissatisfaction with the Court’s institutional deference to the statements of the Government that they had taken adequate action. The letter stated that the situation of migrant workers was not merely a policy decision, but a grave violation of human rights. So, it was incumbent upon the Court to intervene. The next morning, the suo moto case titled , In Re: Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers, was instituted by the Court. 


On May 28th, the Court deemed the measures taken so far were insufficient and ordered detailed reports from all States and Union Territories of their actions in relation to the crisis. The Court ordered eight directions to State governments on the 9th of July, emphasizing that they must provide free ration and transport to migrant workers, and highlighting the need for recording the details of migrant workers to effectively aid their journey to and from their home state. Accordingly, on 31st July, the Court ordered all states and union territories to report on their ability to register migrant workers in keeping with their obligations under three separate enactments. In its hearing on the 31st of July, the Court strongly reprimanded the state governments of  Maharashtra, Delhi, UP , Bihar and Orissa for not filing adequate responses to the government’s past orders relating to the registration of migrants. 


The Court also directed State governments to provide free ration to all migrant workers, whether stranded, travelling, or returned to their home states, under various schemes. On 24th May, and 11th June, the Court discussed the issues faced by migrant workers during the process of registration, and emphasized the need for a national level registry of migrant workers. It also noted the problems of unregistered migrants in accessing food, transport or medical attention under government schemes. 


A more detailed report of the hearings so far, and future updates on the national policy are available on the Supreme Court Observer website.