The Supreme Court on Thursday took up suo motu cognisance of “certain lapses” in government measures to help migrant workers and said that concrete steps needed to be taken, Live Law reported. The court observed that there were several problems in the process of registration, transportation and providing water and food to the migrants.

The court issued interim directions to the Centre, states and Union Territories to alleviate migrant workers’ miseries. It ruled that train or bus fare should not be charged from the migrants and that states must share the travel cost. It also said all migrants who are stranded shall be provided food by the concerned state at places publicised and notified to them for the period they are waiting to board trains. Additionally, the originating states will provide meals and water to migrant workers during the journey and railways will also do the same, the court said.

The states have been directed to speed up the registration process of migrant workers and build helpdesks near areas where they are stranded, while ensuring that they board buses or trains at the earliest.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, told the court that the situation was an “unprecedented crisis” and claimed that the Narendra Modi government was taking significant measures to help the poor. “Some isolated incidents have taken place [pertaining to the plight of migrant workers] but these are being shown repeatedly,” he claimed. “Centre and all state governments are working fully in cooperation across party lines. The total shifting of migrant is 1.85 lakh migrants per day through average train journey of 187 trains operating [to transport migrant workers].”

From May 1, Mehta said, 3,700 special trains have been operated to transport 50 lakh migrant labourers.

A bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan questioned the Centre about food, funding, shelter and the entire logistics of transportation of those stranded amid the extended lockdown to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.

Universalised ticketing

On a question about universalised ticketing, Mehta said it cannot be centralised and that is why state governments have been tasked to make the decisions. However, the court said workers have been waiting for weeks even after registration. “During this period, there are certain essential functions of railways that cannot be compromised,” Mehta responded. “Railways are working at optimum capacity.”

The court asked Mehta on the required timeframe needed to transport migrants to their hometowns. “Who will be monitoring mechanism to ensure food and basic necessities are taken care of,” the judges asked. “It’s not that government is doing nothing, but some concrete steps have to be taken. Hard reality is that it’s [a mechanism to tackle the migrant crisis] not there. Looking at number of migrants, some further steps need to be taken. If a migrant is identified, there must be some certainty that he will be shifted out within one week or 10 days at most? What is that time?”

Meanwhile, Mehta claimed there was “local-level instigation” which is encouraging many migrants to start walking in most cases. “Those who started walking, when the state found them, the bus goes to them immediately and takes them to the nearest railway station,” he added.

‘Prophets of doom’ spreading negativity, claims Centre

The Centre also told the top court not to allow “prophets of doom” to spread negativity amid the crisis. “There are prophets of doom who keep spreading misinformation,” Mehta said. “Not showing courtesy to the nation. All these people writing on social media, giving interviews cannot even acknowledge what is being done. State governments and ministers are working overnight. They don’t even have the patriotism to acknowledge that. Human race is facing most difficult challenge.”

The court will hear the matter next on June 5.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court admitted there were “inadequacies and certain lapses” in government measures. Nine migrants have died on board Shramik Express trains since Monday as the severe heatwave lashed most of northern India. A video of a child trying to wake up his dead mother at the Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar was also widely shared on social media on Wednesday. It was the latest visual to emerge from the unprecedented humanitarian crisis of millions of migrant labourers affected by the nationwide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in India.

The lockdown imposed in March left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded in the places of their work. Millions of them are still walking, cycling, dangerously hitchhiking home, sometimes over distances of more than 1,000 km, often on empty stomachs. More than 170 people have died in accidents on the way. Some died from the sheer exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat.

On April 29, the Centre announced that it would run special Shramik trains to carry migrant workers to their home states. But workers have to get several clearances from their home and host states as part of the process and many of them end up walking.