The Centre on Friday strongly objected to a petition filed in the Supreme Court asking the government to pay labourers and migrant workers their wages amid the 21-day lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak, PTI reported. It said “professional PIL shops” must be shut down till the country comes out of the unprecedented health crisis.

Earlier in the day, the Centre expressed concern over the plight of migrant workers, especially in the unorganised sector. The top court bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta asked the Centre to respond to the petition before April 7.

The petition, filed by activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj, stated that the migrants were not getting their wages because they had left the cities where they worked. The petitioners added that small-scale employers were unable to pay wages because of their current financial position and said the government must make the payments. “The government has ordered that all employers must pay wages to all labourers,” the petitioners said. “But where are they going to get their wages from if they have left the cities they were working in?”

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The petitioners said that the government must provide minimum wages to migrant workers so they can sustain themselves. “The only effective and practical manner in which the migrant workers can be provided with means of survival is for the state to make immediate direct transfers of at least minimum wages during the period of lockdown,” they said.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that the government has done an “exemplary work” in containing the coronavirus spread. He added that the government has taken several proactive and timely steps at various levels to mitigate the problems faced by the citizens of the country.

Mehta said none of the petitioners have even bothered to serve the poor and needy or those suffering from the coronavirus, adding that they cannot be treated as “public spirited citizens”.

He told the court that such “professional PIL shops” must be locked down till India and the world come out of the tragedy. “Filing of PILs in the midst of the government’s fight with this deadly disease is proving to be detrimental in the entire country,” he added.

The solicitor general claimed that he was approached by many advocate generals of states over losing their “precious working hours in these trying times by sitting in lawyers’ chambers and preparing replies to frivolous PILs”.

Mehta said officers should be left to discharge their duties during the unprecedented circumstances. He also urged all constitutional courts in the country to circumspect in entertaining such petitions so as to not create any hindrance in the efforts of the state governments.

Left without livelihood and shelter in big cities, migrant workers have been the hardest-hit by the nationwide lockdown. Thousands of migrant workers have been trying to get home, with many of them attempting to walk the whole way amid lockdown. While the deaths of at least 22 such migrants in transit are documented, the actual number might be much more.

Many were beaten, lathi-charged and sent back from the borders by the police for breaking rules of social distancing amid the lockdown. A group of migrants were also sprayed with disinfectants in Uttar Pradesh. Later, the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh arranged special buses, which thousands of workers boarded amid high risk of coronavirus infection.

On March 29, the home ministry asked all states and the Union Territories to intercept migrants on their way home and put them in quarantine for 14 days to stop the spread of the infection.

Earlier this week,the Supreme Court had directed the Centre to ensure that migrant workers kept in shelters are provided food and medicines. The court also emphasised on the need to provide counselling to the migrants workers to ease their fears.