EARLIER this week, the Apex Court initiated suo motu proceedings to examine state solutions for the difficulties being faced by migrant workers across the country. This comes in the backdrop of another bench’s utter denial in recognising the urgency of the migrant crisis. The court had earlier remarked “How can we stop people from walking” before dismissing the application. Notably, the earlier bench had refused to accept the veracity of newspaper reports, while the current bench has cited newspaper reports to raise a resounding alarm on the current crisis.
However, unlike the change in the air on part of the bench side of courtrooms, it seems the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s submission have had a little change of heart. In a dramatic attempt to belittle undeniable proof of devastation in the country, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta called media “Prophets of Doom” as vultures preying on the pain of migrants for their own benefit. The irony seems to escape him for the presence of vultures is a symbolic representation of death.
One wonders if the SG ever expects to spot vultures in the “everything is fine” picture that he desperately wants us to believe in. Vultures serve a critical function in the natural ecosystem and do what no other species does; much like the empathy that journalists have evoked in this political ecosystem and one from which the State has disinvested itself. One must thank the good sensibilities of Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice S K Kaul and Justice M R Shah, to look through this misrepresentation and issue extensive directions on lapses by governments. Indeed, acknowledgement is the first step towards resolution.
In its action-oriented cloak, the bench through its interim order on May 28 has addressed the two immediate concerns of transportation and aspects of essentially basic survival of migrant workers. The court also took note of the various letters that it has received from civil society organisation. It thanked Advocates Indira Jaising, Colin Gonsalves and Kapil Sibal for putting forth their recommendations as officers of the court.
The vexatious maths of transportation
In a status report filed by Union Government in Alakh Alok Srivastava v Union of India the Central Government had identified that about 4.12 crore migrant workers (excluding family members) would require transportation to their home towns. Additionally, the Railway Ministry in its press conference on May 23 had stated transportation of 3 Lakh migrants per days. The Solicitor General further submitted that from May 1 to May 27, 50 lakh migrant workers have been transported to their home towns by 3700 Shramik trains and through road. This means that an astounding number of 3.62 crore migrants still need transportation.
In normal times the Railways operates at a capacity of transporting 1.08 crore passengers every day. In current times of crisis, no reasonable person can expect full capacity operations. Yet, it is of concern that the Railways is operating only at 3% capacity and transporting about 3.7 lakh passengers through 270 shramik trains per day. At this rate, it will take another three months for the remaining 3.62 crore migrant workers to reach home.
The court also noted the several hurdles that migrant workers are facing due to complex and troubling registration procedures. It was submitted to the bench that no pre-booking is required. Even if the government chooses to do so in its wisdom, it must at least make it less cumbersome and hassle-free. The registered migrant workers should have easy access to information on trains schedules in advance to prevent anxiety and overcrowding at stations.
The court has ordered Railways, State and Union Territories to arrange free travel and ensure safe journeys for the labourers. The State has to make concerted efforts to simplify and hasten the registration process. It is to be ensured by states that registered migrants board trains and buses at the earliest, and in no case should this financial burden be put on the shoulders of any migrant worker. Additionally, a help desk must be provided, and information must be widely publicised. Food and water must be made available by State Government/ Union Territories and Railways for the course of their journeys. Once the migrant workers reach home, the home State must conduct health screening and facilitate their journey ahead to their native homes.
Ensuring basic survival
States must take care of migrant labourers that it finds walking through its territory. They must be provided with food and water, and transport is to be arranged for them to reach their destination. Further, facilities such as health screening must be provided free of cost. The court has repeatedly stressed on State Governments and Union Territories to provide free food to migrant labourers who are stranded in their jurisdiction. To reduce overcrowding at stations and bus stands, food and shelter facilities must be arranged nearby, and information of the same is to be widely publicised.
The bench argued that while there is no denying Governments have taken steps, it can also not be denied that there are several lapses in these efforts that are causing several difficulties for migrant workers. The onus of care has been squarely and clearly placed on the shoulders of the State Governments and Union territories. The court has provided time to states that are yet to submit their and scheduled the next hearing for June 5.