As the Covid lockdown translates to widespread distress, several High Courts, Madras to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka to Gujarat, are raising questions of officials and governments.
On May 15, hearing a plea seeking the safe return of over 400 migrant workers detained at the Maharashtra border to Tamil Nadu, a division bench of the Madras High Court put 12 questions to the state and the Centre on how it was dealing with the migrant crisis set off by the lockdown.
“One cannot control his/her tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers shown in the media for the past one month. It is nothing but a human tragedy,” the court noted. The questions ranged from seeking data on just how many migrants were stranded or walking on highways to what steps are being taken to ferry them home.
The same day, a division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court hearing a public interest litigation seeking its intervention to protect migrants stranded in the state said “it would be failing in its role” if it did not react to the plight of the migrants.
The court then passed a slew of directions to the government to locate the migrants and make food, shelter homes and travel arrangements available to them.
Incidentally, the same day, the Supreme Court declined to hear a PIL on the migrant crisis that sought directions to the Central government to identify stranded migrants and ensure their safety.
“There are people walking and not stopping. How can we stop it?” said Justice Nageswara Rao who led the three-judge bench. The top court said it was for states to deal with the situation.
Despite their restricted functioning, High Courts are questioning the government on the handling of the pandemic even as the Supreme Court has been restrained.
“Imagine if this was an earthquake or floods or whatever… This is really a situation when the Executive gets into action. The usual three ‘Ms’ are ‘men, material and money’. It is very difficult for the court to assume charge and say ‘this is what the priority should be’ and ‘this is what it should be like’. The Executive is better suited to decide on the ‘whats’, ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of deploying money, material and men,” Chief Justice of India S A Bobde said in an interview to The Hindu on April 26.
Just this week, the Bombay High Court directed the Maharashtra government to ensure that all seized personal protection equipment (PPE) reaches frontline workers immediately; the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to file a status report on how it is ensuring that migrant workers reach railway stations and the Calcutta High Court directed the West Bengal government to file a status report on its efforts in handling the crisis.
The issue of migrants paying for tickets to return home in the Shramik Express trains, which became a political flashpoint, is still on the roster of the Karnataka High Court. On May 18, a bench headed by Chief Justice Abhay Oka asked the state government to clarify who is paying for the tickets.
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The Central government said that while some destination states had agreed to pay for the travel of its people, migrants paid for themselves in other cases. However, the court was not satisfied with the stand and said that such categorisation would amount to a violation of the right to equality of a migrant worker whose home-state would not pay for their fare.
On May 5, the Supreme Court refused to intervene on the same issue in a PIL saying it is not for the apex court to decide who pays the rail fare.
“Insofar as charging of 15 per cent of railway tickets’ amount from workers, it is not for this court to issue any order under Article 32 regarding the same, it is for the State/Railways to take necessary steps under the relevant guidelines,” the court noted while taking on record the submissions of Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta who said that “no such statement can be made on what amount is being collected by the migrants.”
While most cases are public interest litigation filed by spirited individuals, high courts have also taken some crucial cases on their own.
On May 20, Justice Prasanna B Varale of the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court took suo motu cognizance of the Maharashtra government’s circular against delivery of newspapers. The high court noted that the registry had attempted to understand the logic behind the caution before taking the issue up on the judicial side.
The Gujarat High Court also took suo motu the steep hospitalisation fee charged by private hospitals in treating Covid patients. The court noted that the government has not ensured a level-playing field in Gujarat, where cases have already crossed 12,000.
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