The Supreme Court on Monday gave the Centre one week to respond to a plea seeking to allow migrant labourers to return to their hometowns, amid a nationwide lockdown till May 3 to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, Live Law reported. The bench said that the Centre only has to respond on whether any proposal has been formulated for returning the workers to their villages.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the government, opposed the plea. The lawyer also urged the top court to adjourn the hearing to two weeks later. “The government is also very much concerned with the matters concerning migrant labourers,” Mehta said. “Other than a few individuals there is also the government which is concerned about people. The government is consulting with states as to how many have to be transported to their states and how many have to be given help and what kind of help.”

On the other hand, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the petitioners, took note of a report in The Hindu and said that 96% of migrant labourers had not been given wages and had an insufficient supply of food. “Why can’t the people who have tested negative go back to their respective homes?” Bhushan asked. “I don’t understand.” However, Mehta claimed that these reports were wrong.

Bhushan said that some states, which wanted to bring migrants back, had been unable to do so. He accused the Centre of not enforcing the fundamental rights of people.

The governments of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Bihar have supported sending migrant workers back to their villages. Uttar Pradesh has already begun the process for taking in its labourers working in other states. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has assured migrant workers of action but said that railways cannot be used for their return.

On Saturday, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot urged the Centre to run a special train to help the migrants get home. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had last month disapproved of interstate movement of people during the lockdown, changed his mind last week. He supported the proposal to relax movement restrictions so that labourers could return home.

The Centre had opposed the plea in the Supreme Court saying that allowing migrants to travel back to their villages could enable the spread of the coronavirus. The Ministry of Home Affairs had prepared a report that said there was a significant hazard that allowing migration of labourers will spread Covid-19 in rural areas, which have so far been largely insulated from the virus. “The country is dealing with an unprecedented situation and any lapse at any end by anyone may result in loss of precious human lives,” the report said.

On Sunday, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari opposed inter-state movement of the migrants. “If migrants return, they will not return alone, coronavirus will return with them,” Gadkari. “If the migrants are being taken back, it should be verified that they are not coronavirus positive.”

On March 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced an initial lockdown of 21 days. Following this, scores of migrant workers set out on foot to their villages, hundreds of kilometres away. However, the Centre, fearing a spread of the Covid-19 infection.

Earlier in the day, Modi held a video conference with the chief ministers to discuss the Covid-19 situation. However, it is not yet known if Modi discussed the migrant labourers’ problem with the chief ministers.

Covid-19 has infected more than 27,800 people in India so far and led to the deaths of 872 people.

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