The Supreme Court’s order to the government to provide food rations to migrant workers grappling with economic distress amid the Covid-19 crisis will bring them much-needed relief, the petitioners in the case said on Tuesday.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah had directed the Centre to bring in a scheme for distribution of dry ration to migrants and operate community kitchens so that no one goes hungry during the pandemic. They also directed the Centre to set up a national portal for registration of unorganised sector workers by July 31.

These directions were issued based on a petition filed by activists Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Jagdeep Chhoka, who had said that migrant workers were again left without welfare support during the second wave of the pandemic as states imposed lockdowns to curb Covid-19 cases.

In a statement issued after the hearing, the petitioners noted that the situation was more serious for migrant workers this year because their small savings had been spent coping with the countrywide lockdown in 2020.

They welcomed the Supreme Court’s intervention in the matter. “It is significant that the SC has recognised that economic distress does not go away merely with the lifting of lockdowns and has directed that ration be provided till the pandemic continues, not merely as a one-time relief,” the petitioners said.

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During Tuesday’s hearing, the court had also directed all the states and Union Territories to implement the “one nation, one ration card” scheme. The scheme will allow migrant workers to get subsidised food from the public distribution system from any part of the country.

However, the petitioners highlighted that there was a problem since the portability being brought through the scheme was restricted to those who had ration cards.

They informed the Supreme Court that many migrant workers were unable to get ration cards either because of not being able to produce documents like the Aadhar card or their states having exhausted the quotas for issuing them.

“It was urged that the central government be directed to revise the state-wise quotas as at the current population projection of 139 crore, applying coverage of 67% under NFSA [National Food Security Act] (as per 2011 figures), coverage under NFSA should be 93 crore people as against the current figure of 80 crore,” the petitioners said.

They added:

“Taking cognisance of the issue, the SC noted that more than 10 years have elapsed since the state-wise coverage was determined and has directed the central government ‘to take steps to undertake exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered under Rural and Urban areas of the State, which shall be beneficial to large number of persons’.” 

— Activists Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Jagdeep Chhoka.

The petitioners also informed the Supreme Court that emergency cash transfers were crucial to help migrant workers cope with the economic crisis.

“Money is needed to pay for health expenditure, rent payment and basic expenses like cooking oil, milk, vegetables,” they said. “All evidence points to deep economic crisis of job loss, reduced wages and contraction of economy and manufacturing sector – an estimated 23 crore Indians have been pushed into poverty during the past one year of the pandemic.”

However, the court did not pass an order related to this aspect. “The direct bank transfer being matter of policy and being in domain of the State, no direction can be issued by this Court for any direct bank transfer as claimed by certain applicants/intervenors,” the Supreme Court said. “We only observe that in event any person is entitled for direct bank transfer as per the existing scheme in any state, he can avail the said benefit by the mechanism as provided in the policy decision.”

Right to Food campaign also welcomes order

The Right to Food Campaign also welcomed the Supreme Court’s order. “This is significant as there is deep economic distress in the country and one-time relief is woefully inadequate,” it said.

The campaign added that a universal public distribution system was urgently needed now as crores of people had slipped into poverty because of economic recession.

The Right to Food Campaign said the Supreme Court’s orders must be implemented as soon as possible. “Lockdown restrictions put in place to curb the pandemic since last year have caused unprecedented distress among people and the relief packages by the central and state governments have been rather inadequate to address the deep nature of the crisis,” it added.

The campaign said the government must also revive Integrated Child Development Services and mid-day meal schemes.

Migrant crisis in 2020

The nationwide lockdown imposed in March 2020 had triggered an exodus of migrant workers from major cities. With most modes of public transport shut down, thousands of migrant workers were left with the option of either ferrying rides on private vehicles with cramped spaces, or walk hundreds of kilometres to their hometowns in the sweltering heat. Many of them died during their journeys.

A survey of over 11,000 stranded migrant workers, done by the Stranded Workers Action Network, showed that half of them had stocks of ration that would only last less than a day. Out of these, 96% workers had not received rations from the government, and 70% had not received any cooked food. As many as 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown, the report added.

The government started over 300 special trains on May 1 to help the workers get home amid severe criticism from all quarters.

In September, the Centre told the Parliament that it has no data on the number of deaths of migrant workers. However, the Railway Protection Force had said that nearly 80 migrant workers died of starvation or heat sickness while travelling on special trains between May 9 and May 27.

In June this year, the Railway Board said that as many as 8,733 people, most of whom were migrants, were killed on tracks in 2020 despite a halt on passenger train services amid the lockdown.