The Supreme Court, which has taken suo motu cognisance of the migrant crisis triggered by Covid-19 lockdown, on Thursday directed state governments not to charge travel fare for travel either by train or bus from the migrant workers heading home, adding that they should be provided with food and water.
A bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan said that the originating state shall provide meals and water at the station and during the journey, the Railways would provide the same to the migrant workers. It said that food and water be also provided to them for travel in buses.
In response, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the government, said, “Some originating state pays, some receiving states are paying and some states are reimbursing… ”
The Solicitor General further said, “Tickets cannot be centralised at the central level. That’s why railways decided it will be left to the state governments. A decision was taken that rail fare will be paid by originating state or receiving state but the migrant workers will not be burdened with it.”
To the Supreme Court’s question on basic provisions on the train and health protocols being followed, SG Mehta said: “Food and drinking water are being provided by railways free of cost. The first meal is provided by state government. After the train starts, the food is provided by the rail ministry. Indian railways has given 84 lakh meals… For over 80 per cent migrants, the state of destination is either UP or Bihar.
“Once they reach destination state, they are screened again…In some states depending upon the health protocol, they are required to be quarantined before they reach their houses. State govt provides for buses to take them to their respective villages.”
The top court asked the solicitor general that either the Centre or origin state should take care of the food being provided to the migrants till the time they are transportted back to their places.
“How much time do you need to shift the migrants…? What will be monitoring mechanism to ensure food and basic necessities are taken care of… It’s not that the government is not doing anything but looking at the number of stranded migrants, some concrete steps needed,” the top court said.
To this, the solicitor general said the states would be in a better position to estimate the numbers.
The court further asked how many migrants are living in the government shelter homes and how the government is taking care of them. The solicitor general replied that 5 kg grain and 1 kg pulse is being provided to every migrant irrespective of whether or not they are in such camps.
The SG called the people questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic as “prophets of doom”, saying they “only spread negativity”. “State governmentss and ministers are working overnight. None of these people acknowledge that… These arm chair intellectuals do not recognise the nation’s effort,” he said.
He also said that people in the country, from the safai karamcharis to the prime minister, are working tirelessly. “Don’t allow this to become a platform for political speeches,” he told the bench.
Weeks after migrant workers started walking to their native places, the top court took suo motu cognizance of “problems and miseries of migrants” stranded in different parts of the country and “inadequacies and certain lapses” in efforts by the Centre and the states. The court had sought their responses on the matter by today.
The hearing began with Mehta thanking the court for taking cognisance and said the Centre and the states all have a responsible and an august forum where they can suggest steps.
“Some isolated incidents have taken place but these are being shown repeatedly…We have filed a preliminary report. Initial lockdown on March 24 was imposed with a two-fold purpose — to break the chain of the virus and to enhance and strengthen hospitals and healthcare,” he added.
The Solicitor General further said, “Initially, there was a movement of migrants and that was sought to be stopped so that infection doesn’t move from urban to rural areas… then centre decided we must now shift the migrants. The Govt will not stop its efforts until every single migrant is shifted.”
“We started Shramik special trains…because of some unfortunate incidents, what’s actually happened has not been placed in the public domain. As many as 3,700 special trains for transporting migrants have operated between May 1-27 and 91 lakh migrants have already been shifted,” he said.
Mehta also said that the Centre and all state governments are working fully in cooperation across party lines. “Some misery some problems are arising… This movement of migrants is done in coordination with the originating state, receiving state and the railway ministry.”
On Tuesday, the Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, S K Kaul and M R Shah said it was “of the view that effective concentrated efforts are required to redeem the situation”.
“We, thus, issue notice to the Union of India and all States/ Union Territories to submit their responses looking into the urgency of the matter. We direct the suo motu petition to be taken up day-after-tomorrow and we request the learned Solicitor General to assist the Court and by the next date of hearing bring in the notice of the Court all measures and steps taken by the Government of India and to be taken in this regard,” the bench said.
Pointing out that “the crises of migrant labourers is even continuing today with large sections still stranded on roads, highways, railway stations and state borders,” the judges said “adequate transport arrangement, food and shelters are immediately to be provided by the Centre and State Governments free of cost”.
The top court had also said that “in the present situation of lockdown in the entire country, this section of the society needs succour and help by the concerned governments… steps need to be taken by the Government of India, State Governments/Union Territories in this difficult situation”.