Making clear that “this institution is not hostage to the government”, the Supreme Court Monday gave the Centre a week to respond to a prayer for inter-state movement of migrant workers stranded due to the nationwide lockdown.
The bench of Justices N V Ramana, S K Kaul and B R Gavai asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to inform it about the steps being taken in this regard.
“We are only asking if there is any proposal regarding this,” Justice Kaul observed after the Solicitor General said the government was seized of the emerging situation and would examine concerns raised in the plea.
Mehta said the Centre was consulting the states on the issues being faced by the migrant workers. He urged the court to record his statement instead of issuing any direction.
The bench objected to a tweet by advocate Prashant Bhushan — he was appearing for petitioner Jagdeep Chhokar — in which he targeted the functioning of the court.
“You don’t have faith in us. How can we hear you?… An order can always be criticised… You say that you are with this institution for more than 30 years. You know some orders are favourable, some are not. You should not have said such things… This institution is not hostage to the government,” Justice Kaul told Bhushan after Mehta drew the bench’s attention to the tweet.
Bhushan said: “I understand, Sir. This is not lack of faith in the institution.”
“Don’t try to project that you are the only concerned person in the country,” Mehta intervened.
“I have never said that I have no faith in this institution,” Bhushan said, adding “if the objection is to me, I will withdraw. Some other lawyer will appear”.
“Why should we ask you to withdraw?” Justice Kaul asked.
“I only expressed my views. Some retired judges are also saying the same thing,” Bhushan said.
“We also have some views. So what?” countered Justice Kaul.
Bhushan said the migrant workers have only a day’s ration with them and are in a desperate situation. “Why people who have tested negative can’t go to their respective homes, I don’t understand,” he said, adding that this violates their fundamental right.
The court then pointed to reports about some states taking steps to address this.
Bhushan replied that the steps were only for students. He also cited news reports which said 96% of the workers are not getting wages, and have very little food.
Mehta said the report was wrong.
Bhushan said the government was not enforcing the fundamental rights of the people and, therefore, he was pleading to this court to enforce their fundamental rights.
“This is the institution in which one has a lot of faith,” he said.
Justice Gavai pointed out that he had come across reports that the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister was saying he will bring back 15 lakh labourers.
Bhushan replied that this will clash with the Centre’s orders. He said it seemed as if the Centre had shut its eyes.
Intervening, Mehta said the government was very concerned and was helping the migrant workers. He said the government was consulting states on how many have to be transported to their states and how many have to be given help and what kind of help. “We are taking all kind of steps,” he said.
Justice Kaul asked Mehta “are you ready to examine this”.
The SG replied that the government was examining everything. “Brilliant ideas of the petitioner are not required,” he said.
“So, you are in consultation with states?” Justice Kaul asked. “Many things are being discussed,” Mehta said, assuring the court all points raised by the petitioner will be examined by the government.
Taking a dig at Bhushan, Mehta said, “every time Mr Bhushan loses, he goes to the lawns and says this is a black day. You cannot run government as a PIL petitioner.”
He also raised questions on the data cited by Bhushan to make his claim about migrant workers not being paid. He sought two weeks to reply, but the court granted him one week.
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