Ensure food, shelter, free journey home for migrant workers: SC
New Delhi: In a scathing indictment of the Centre's inadequate mechanism to deal with the unending migrant workers crisis, the Supreme Court of India on Thursday said: "Hard reality is that it's (a mechanism to deal with the migrant crisis) not there." As a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and MR Shah presided over the suo motu case of the plight of stranded migrant workers, the top court also issued a slew of interim directions to protect the rights of migrant workers. The SC directed:
No fare should be charged from migrant workers, either travelling by train or bus and that rail costs must be borne by the states.
Migrant workers must be given food by the concerned state/UT at places that should be publicised and notified for the time they will be waiting to board their bus or train.
The migrant workers who are currently walking on roads must be immediately taken to shelters and be given food and all other facilities.
The originating state must provide food to migrant workers before the train journey and thereon the railways must provide food and water to migrant workers during their journey. Food and water must also be provided for bus journeys.
States shall oversee the registration process of migrant workers and must ensure that they are on their way to their home destination as soon as possible.
The Supreme Court's directions came after Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta repeatedly failed to answer questions on what mechanism had been put in place to ensure that food, water and shelter are being provided to stranded migrant workers. Before noting that there was no mechanism in place to deal with the crisis, the SC bench had asked S-G Mehta, "Look into the future. How much time do you need to shift the migrants to where they want to go? What will be the monitoring mechanism to ensure food and basic necessities are taken care of? It is not that the Government is doing nothing, but some concrete steps have to be taken."
The S-G did not directly answer the question as to how many migrant workers continue to wait to return home and neither did he answer repeated questions of how much time would be needed to shift migrant workers to where they want to go. S-G Mehta submitted that Shramik Special trains had been run from May 1 and that over 97 lakh migrant workers were shifted to their home states through these trains and bus services operated for shorter journeys.
On questions of why food and water were not being provided in the Shramik trains, Mehta informed the court that the Railways was indeed providing food and that it had provided some 84 lakh meals in these trains since they started operations. When asked again as to how much time would be needed to send migrant workers back home, the S-G said, "States would be in a better position to estimate that". Facing a barrage of questions about measures that had been taken to deal with this crisis from the court, the S-G asked that he be allowed to file a more comprehensive reply, which he assured "would fully satisfy the court".
Late on Wednesday night, amid reports that thousands of migrant workers are not being provided basic meals on the Shramik trains and many having succumbed to exhaustion and lack of food and water, Railways officials had said that nine migrant workers had died on Shramik trains. They, however, did not elaborate on the cause of death and attributed it to illnesses they had before boarding the train. This also raised questions on the effectiveness of the screening process at railway stations, which is supposed to check for symptomatic passengers before they are allowed to board.
While pulling up the Centre and states during the hearing on Thursday, the court also noted that interstate-agreements to pay for migrant workers' rail fares was clearly not working out in many instances and reimbursement options are being implemented effectively only by Bihar, before suggesting that a uniform approach to deciding on these fares is the need of the hour.
The court also asked whether migrant workers are informed or whether the Centre is aware of how much time it will take for migrant workers to reach their homes after they register, to which the S-G again said he would file a detailed reply, which would give the court an entire "larger picture" of the situation when read together with the states' affidavits. While some states had filed their affidavits on Thursday, many had not and the SC noted that states and the Centre would need more time to file their replies in the matter.
As the S-G mentioned that the Centre would need at least 10 days to file the reply, the court posted the matter next for June 5. Senior advocates Indira Jaising and Kapil Sibal also made their submission to the court. While Jaising sought for more trains to be run to expedite the process, Sibal pointed out that the Centre had not bothered to set minimum standards for shelter, food, drinking water and medical facilities as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, which was why migrant workers were being forced to set out on foot.
S-G Mehta, however, maintained that "local instigations" were reasons for migrant workers wanting to leave for their homes and that after every migrant had been identified to be walking on highways they had been shifted to shelter homes. However, the court pointed out that "they are still walking" and asked, "How are you ensuring food reaches them?"