The Supreme Court on Thursday said that migrant workers play a crucial role in building the nation and their rights cannot be ignored, PTI reported. It directed the states and the Centre to issue ration cards to them.

A bench of Justices MR Shah and BV Nagarathna was hearing a suo motu petition related to the problems faced by the migrant workers after the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the outset, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati told the bench that the process of registering migrant workers on the e-Shram portal is going on, Live Law reported.

The e-Shram portal, an initiative of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, came into being as a response to the Supreme Court’s suo moto petition on the migrant crisis of 2020. Migrants can use the portal to avail benefits of certain government schemes.

Bhati told the bench that workers were being encouraged to self-register on the portal. Camps were also being organised to help them in this process.

The additional solitictor general said that the Central government has given targets to every state to include an estimate of the number of migrant workers they have to assist. Uttar Pradesh and Odisha have exceeded the target, Bhati added.

But when the bench was told that several other states had failed to meet even the 50% target, the judges said that the rights of migrant workers cannot be ignored, reported Live Law.

“In a welfare society, in our country, two persons are most important – farmers and migrant labourers,” Justice Shah said. “If the needy cannot reach the well, the well has to go to the needy and thirsty people.”

Shah suggested that the government can reach out to the contractors, under whom labourers work.

“The concerned state governments have to ensure the benefits reach them,” he added. “Why don’t you go to the places where they are working, issue circulars to all contractors that unless their [labourers] names are registered on the portal you [contractors] would be responsible. Everybody has to try.”

Advocate Prashant Bhushan told the bench that a large number of migrant workers have not been issued ration cards as the government has not undertaken the exercise to re-determine coverage under the National Food Security Act, 2013, Live Law reported.

Under the National Food Security Act, every ration cardholder of “priority households” is entitled to 5 kg of grain per month.

“Most migrants do not have ration cards and the current number is based on the 2011 census and not 2021,” Bhushan said. “The Central government says that in 2021 there was a pandemic so they couldn’t do a census. The health department has a population estimate but they said they can only go with census data. There lies the heart of the problem.”

Bhushan also submitted that out of 60,980 migrant workers in Telangana, only 14,000 posses ration cards, reported Live Law. “Seventy-five percent of the migrant workers [in Telangana] do not possess ration cards,” he added.

Bhushan had represented activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Harsh Mander and Jagdeep Chhokar, who had filed a plea to ensure food security and other welfare measures for migrant workers during the second wave of the pandemic.

At Thursday’s hearing, Justice Shah noted that the country’s population has increased since the 2011 census. He said that the decade-old data might end up doing “some injustice” to those who are struggling for food supply.

“In true perspective, you [the government] have to consider that your own people who are needy are getting something,” Justice Shah said. “If you determine the quota on the basis of 2011, you might be doing some injustice.”

Justice Shah said that the state governments and the Centre need to ensure migrant workers are provided with ration cards, reported Live Law.

“We have to work out a modality so that more migrants can get the benefit,” Justice Shah said.

The Supreme Court bench said it will hear the matter again after two weeks, reported PTI.

“Ultimately in India, no citizen should die of hunger,” Justice Nagarathna added. “But that is happening. Citizens are dying of hunger. In villages, they tie their stomach tightly with cloth, they drink water and sleep. They tie it tightly so that they can kill hunger.”