The Supreme Court on Friday said it intended to give the Centre and the states 15 more days to transport all stranded migrant workers amid the months-long lockdown to rein in the coronavirus pandemic, Live Law reported. The top court will pronounce its order on June 9 after it took suo motu cognisance of the plight of workers.
A three-judge bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah took note of the submissions made by the Centre and the state governments on steps taken so far to help migrants’ return home. “What we propose to do is that we will give you [Centre] and the states 15 days time to transport all migrants,” the court said. “All states will have to bring on record how they will provide employment and other kinds of relief. There should be registration of the migrants.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that the Indian Railways has operated 4,228 special trains till June 3. He added that till now over one crore migrant workers have been transported to their destinations through trains and buses.
He urged the court to continue the existing system for train travel as announcing trains in advance would lead to chaos. “There can’t be objection to declaring trains in advance, but if it’s made open to all there will be rush at the station,” the solicitor general said. “The system adopted by state so far has worked effectively, let it remain.”
However, advocate Colin Gonsalves submitted that the registration system is a major problem for the migrant workers. “Half the migrant workers are not able to register to even go back,” he said. “We can have spots at police stations or other places where migrants can go and physically fill the registration forms.”
Gonsalves pointed out that two other High Courts also said that there is a need to simplify the whole process. “In Tamil Nadu, contractor is registering the migrants with forms asking 28 questions to migrants,” the advocate added. “But the questions are in English. This can be altered. We have filed a SWAN report which shows how non simplified system is posing a hurdle for migrants.”
Advocate Indira Jaising said that migrant workers should be treated like normal travellers. “Allow them to manually get tickets,” she told the court. “Trains be announced one week in advance, so that everyone knows when the train will depart, from which destination to where and and what time.”
Mehta objected to the submissions made by Jaising, saying those who did not contribute in Covid-19 management should not be allowed to address the court. He assured that the Centre has taken all measures as a welfare state to alleviate the problems of the stranded workers. “I have also filed my affidavit pointing out measures being taken by centre for distribution of food etc,” he added. “This is only to satisfy your conscience that as a welfare state we have done whatever we could.”
The Supreme Court said that it will pass directions for registration of migrant workers who have returned to their respective states. “There should be centres to take care of their health at the district levels now,” the court added.
Submissions made by states
After this, other states made submissions on the data they have collected on migrants who have returned home. Bihar said 28 lakh people have returned from the other parts of the country, adding that it has already mapped the skill set of migrant workers who have come back. Gujarat said 20.50 lakh migrants have been sent home from the state and the situation has improved 100%.
The court pointed out that Maharashtra has only asked for one train. Mehta said they have already run 802 trains from the state. The counsel for Maharashtra said only 38,000 migrants are remaining and agreed that they need only one more train to transport them.
Delhi said 2 lakh workers remain to be transported and some have stayed back in the national Capital after construction work resumed.
West Bengal said that six lakh migrants are yet to return to the state, adding that the state has been serving 1 lakh meals to people in relief camps. Mehta told the court that the state has only requested 17 trains. “You have 6 lakh people to come back and you need only 17 trains,” the court asked the counsel. In response, the counsel said they have more information about those who want to come back, but do not have requests on those who want to go.
Tamil Nadu requested more time to file an affidavit about the remaining migrants who need to be transported back from the state. “We can give you 15 days time to complete the entire process,” Justice Bhushan said.
Madhya Pradesh said only 25,000 migrants are yet to return to the state, while Rajasthan received over 13 lakh workers.
Kerala told the Supreme Court that over 1 lakh migrant workers have been transported. Karnataka said it had facilitated the travel of about 3,67,000 migrants from the state. “We have borne the fare of all where receiving state did not pay for it,” the state’s counsel said.
Odisha said it is taking extra care as a lot of migrants are returning to their native places through their state.
On May 28, the Supreme Court observed that there were several problems in the process of registration, transportation and providing water and food to the migrants. The court had ruled that migrant workers must not be charged for train or bus fare, and that states should provide meals to them. Earlier, the top court had also admitted there were “inadequacies and certain lapses” in government measures.
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.