When the Supreme Court on Thursday began the suo motu proceedings on the plight of migrant workers stranded by the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the Centre was expected to provide a comprehensive report explaining how it would ease the immense burdens faced by people trying to get to their home villages.

Instead, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, the Centre’s second-most senior law officer, used the forum to attack the government’s critics, who he labelled “prophets of doom”.

“State governments and ministers are working overnight,” Mehtra claimed. But the government’s critics “don’t even have the patriotism to acknowledge that”.

Over the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has faced intense criticism for failing to show urgency in ordering the government to help India’s stranded migrant workers. Trapped in cities without work or money to buy food after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to impose a lockdown on March 25, hundreds of thousands began to walk to their home villages – some of them undertaking journeys that were over 1,000 km. A month later, special trains began to run but operations were chaotic.

Former judges, activists and senior lawyers repeatedly urged the court to intervene and set things right. On Tuesday, the court finally registered a suo motu case, giving the Centre and the states two days to file replies about the measures they had taken to help the workers.

On Thursday, the court ordered that migrant workers should not be charged for bus and train fares. It added hat the governments should ensure food and water are provided to them for the period they are waiting to board trains and buses, at places notified to them.

However, the Centre took a curiously belligerent position. Here are some of the arguments made by the government’s lawyer, Tushar Mehta, that do not stand the test of logic.

1. Workers are being instigated to leave cities

On March 31, Tushar Mehta told the court that fake news was responsible for the exodus of workers from India’s cities to their home villages, a submission that the court accepted. On Thursday, Mehta argued that many of the workers did not wish to leave cities but were being instigated to do so.

“In many cases there is local level instigation which is encouraging people to start walking,” he claimed.

When senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, who is also a Congress member, said that at the current rate at which transport was being provided, it would take three months for all the workers to get home, Mehta doubled down on his position. “They don’t wish to go,” he claimed. “You don’t understand that ?”

His submission blatantly trivialised the plight of India’s migrant workers. Having lost their jobs as the economy was devastated by the lockdown, millions of workers have risked their lives to undertake perilous journeys. Media reports suggest at least 170 have died in the process. Disregarding the danger of the pandemic, thousands have queued up to board cramped trains and buses to make their way home, often without being served food and water en route.

To argue that the workers acted this way because they were instigated to do so is an insult to their intelligence, to their ability to make their own decisions and to their suffering. If indeed the Centre believes the workers have been instigated, who are these people behind the conspiracy and against how many of them have the authorities taken action? Apart from vaguely claiming the hand of “local elements”, Mehta failed to provide any clues about the instigators.

Migrant workers in Bangalore plead with the authorities to be provided transport to return to Punjab. Credit: PTI Credit

2 ‘What have they contributed?’

After having claimed that the Centre was making every effort to help the workers, something that is factually questionable, Mehta claimed the government’s criticis were “prophets of doom” who only spread “negativity, negativity, negativity”.

Mehta demanded to know what these “arm chair intellectuals” had done to help the workers.

By doing so, Mehta was claiming that the state, with all the resources at its disposal, did not have any more responsibilities than the citizens it governed. But the government runs on taxes paid by citizens. It is the right of every citizen to know how the government was using their taxes to help large sections of the population in serious distress.

This apart, the purpose of moving the court is to make the government act to redress a wrong. The right to approach the court or participate in proceedings to point out the failures of the government cannot be undercut by a demand to showcase what an individual has done for the very cause.

If this is set as a condition precedent, only the rich and the powerful would be able to access the court on matters of public interest. The primary duty of helping the workers lies with the government and not of those seeking to make it function effectively.

3 Media, vultures and patriotism

Despite overwhelming evidence of the workers’ misery, Mehta repeatedly claimed that “some isolated” incidents are being depicted in the media repeatedly. “Sometimes limited instances have long lasting impact on the human mind,” he said. “Reporting may not be fully accurate. Repeated reporting of isolated incident has a deep impact.”

He accused “arm chair intellectuals” of lacking the patriotism to acknowledge the government’s efforts. Mehta’s invocation of patriotism echos the tried-and-tested strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its followers of labelling anyone questioning the government as an “anti-national”. Mehta failed to realise that the fundamentals of patriotism lies in the concern for fellow citizens, who constitute the nation, and not in expressing appreciation for the government.

Mehta went on to cite an iconic picture titled “The Struggling Girl”, shot by photographer Kevin Carter and published by the New York Times in 1993. In the picture, shot in Sudan during a famine in 1993, a vulture can be seen looming over a starving girl. Mehta invoked the image purportedly as a parallel to the reporting on the workers’ crisis and of critics of the BJP government.

Migrant workers queue up in Mumbai's Dharavi neighbourhood to fill out forms to be allowed to leave the city. Credit: PTI

Mehta noted that some people had criticised the photographer for wielding his camera and failing to help the child , and the fact that Carter killed himself four months after the picture was published. What Mehta failed to acknowledge was the profound impact the picture had in highlighting the plight of the people of Sudan and the humanitarian efforts that followed as a result.

He seems to have ignored the role the Indian media’s reportage on the migrant crisis has played in building public opinion that prompted to Supreme Court to take suo moto cognisance of the workers’ problems.

4 Political platform and the court

All through, Mehta repeatedly said that the court should not be allowed to be used as a political platform. Ironically, it was clear that it was Mehta who was using the proceedings to attack critics of the government.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not find it necessary to stop Mehta, even though it asked those before it to not indulge in blame game. Not only did Mehta criticise the media and those appearing before the court, he claimed that High Courts were running a parallel government on the issue.

Even if the court did not want to counter Mehta on other points, it should have taken strong exception to the remarks that the solicitor general made on the High Courts, which also act as constitutional courts in India. This was important because none of the High Courts were represented before the proceedings to counter his statements.