'Inclined to pass directions': SC on plight of migrant workers amid second COVID wave

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court Thursday said it is inclined to pass directions to the national capital region (NCR) states to have community kitchens and to facilitate transportation of migrant workers who are willing to return home amid the current wave of COVID-19 pandemic.

The apex court observed that authorities must ensure that migrant workers returning home are not charged exorbitant fare by private bus operators and the Centre may consider involving the Railways to facilitate their transportation.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah observed this while hearing a plea filed by three activists who have sought directions to the Centre and states to ensure food security, cash transfers, transport facilities and other welfare measures for migrant workers who are facing distress due to the curbs clamped in several parts of the country amid the pandemic.

“For the time being, we are inclined to pass directions on community kitchen so that nobody starves and also on facilitating transport of those who are willing to go,” the bench said, adding that it would pass the order by Thursday evening.

The bench said that for NCR states Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, it would issue certain directions while for other states, it may ask them to file their responses on the issues raised in the plea.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the applicants, said that due to the pandemic a huge number of migrant workers are again facing distress as they have lost jobs and have no money to look after themselves.

Referring to the prayers made in the application, he claimed that migrant workers were being charged exorbitantly by private bus operators for travelling to their native places.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench that the country is fighting the pandemic and efforts of all the states is to ensure that industrial and construction activities are not halted.

“This year, the effort of every state is to ensure that it is not a lockdown in a sense which we have seen last time. Industries are working and construction activities are going on,” he told the bench, adding that all state governments are “elected government” and are alive to the situation.

Mehta told the bench that states should be allowed to place all the details before the bench.

“That we will allow. But he (Bhushan) has raised the issue of NCR. He says private bus operators are charging exorbitant rates. The police and administration have to take action on this,” the bench observed.

Mehta said facilitation of transportation should not be considered as incentivisation for exodus of migrants.

“Any direction right now that facilitate their transportation will incentivise migration,” he said.

Mehta said this application filed in the court is “far from reality” and has been filed from the “comfort of their homes”.

“If the court is inclined to pass some interim order, then it should also ask the petitioners to help the migrant workers and provide funds for community kitchen. They should also help the initiatives taken by the state governments,” he said.

Bhushan objected to Mehta’s submissions and said, “I am amazed that Solicitor General is making such submissions. The Centre should provide foodgrains to the migrant workers which is rotting in its godowns.”

During the hearing, the bench observed, “If somebody is willing to go, he should be facilitated”.

“We do not agree that this will incentivise it,” the bench said, adding, “Some sustenance must be provided for the time being. You have to consider the harsh realities”.

“We are not issuing direction for free ride. We are only saying that those who are willing to travel should be facilitated and it must be ensured that they are not charged exorbitantly,” the bench said.

At the outset, the top court observed that by and large, most of the migrant workers have already returned to their native places and states should highlight the schemes which are meant for their welfare there.

The apex court said last year, it had passed several directions in the suo motu case on problems and miseries of migrant labourers amid the pandemic.

It said the states should file their responses on the directions given earlier by the court.

In May last year, the top court had taken suo motu cognizance of problems and miseries of migrant labourers and had passed a slew of directions, including asking the states not to charge fare from migrant workers and provide them food for free till they board trains or buses.

It had asked the Centre and states to identify and send back within 15 days stranded migrant workers willing to return to their native places and advocated for their counselling and help to find avenues of employment lost during COVID-19 induced nationwide lockdown last year.

Referring to the resurgence of COVID-19 infections and consequent curbs, activists – Anjali Bharadwaj, Harsh Mander and Jagdeep Chhokar — have filed the fresh interim plea in the suo motu case seeking initiation of welfare measures again.

“Direct the UOI (Union of India) to resume its scheme of providing dry rations under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ scheme, or any other scheme designed for that purpose, to all eight crore migrant labourers/stranded or needy persons who are not covered under the National Food Security Act or state PDS cards and were identified under the said scheme last year, for at least such time that the Disaster Management Act is in force by issuance of COVID ration cards,” it has said.