Travel fare not to be charged from migrants; notify places providing food for the stranded, directs SC
Taking note of the miseries of stranded migrants across the country, SC on Thursday passed a slew of significant directions in a case in which it had taken suo moto cognisance of the issue
In the suo motu matter on the COVID-19 migrant crisis, the Supreme Court on Thursday made it clear that migrants seeking to return to their home states will not be charged train and bus fares, legal news website BarandBench.com has reported.
The court granted state governments time to file replies after posing a number of questions regarding the transportation of migrant workers by Shramik trains and other modes of transport amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and MR Shah, that had earlier decided to take up the issue suo motu, heard the matter on Thursday.
On the last date of hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta was asked to apprise the court on the steps taken by the Central government to deal with the crisis faced by migrant workers. Today, he submitted, "We are immensely grateful to the Supreme Court for taking cognizance of the issue. Due to this, states and Centre has an august forum now to discuss the migrant crisis issue. Some unfortunate things have happened and it is being flashed again and again."
Justice Bhushan replied, "We are not disputing the fact that Centre has not taken steps. But whoever needs help is not getting that help. states are not doing their bit."
Mehta proceeded to assure the court that the government will not stop its efforts until every willing migrant labourer is sent to his village.
He went on to inform the Court that Shramik trains have been operating since May 1 to transport the migrant workers. From May 1-27, 50 lakh migrant labourers have been transported by these trains, the SG claimed. He went on to say, "Centre and states are working above political and party lines so that mitigation measures are taken. We have shifted 1.85 lakh migrants per day. This proves 137 special Shramik trains have been operating."
Mehta added that 41 lakh migrant workers travelling shorter distances have been transported by road since May 1.
The Court proceeded to question Mehta on the fare charged for the Shramik trains. Justice Shah remarked, "It seems there is no clarity about fare and thus middlemen are taking advantage."
Mehta replied that either the originating state or the receiving state covers the fare. He submitted, "Initially decision was that it cannot be at the central level. There was a need to decentralize it and states will look after it. Some states charged them initially, and some have given free travel."
He also said that the Indian Railways was providing the migrants food and water at no cost. So far, over 80 lakh meals and 1 crore bottles of drinking water have been served, he claimed.
The SG further pointed out the "good work" being done by the Uttar Pradesh government, which he said was giving migrant workers food kits and Rs. 1000 before quarantining them on arrival.
At this point, the Bench posed a barrage of questions regarding the aid offered to migrants.
Justice Bhushan said, "You have already reached the next stage when they reach states. But there are migrant labourers who are unable to take rail or road. They are stuck in Maharashtra, and other places."
Coming back to the train fare issue, Justice Kaul asked, "What if both the states don't pay? Then how will migrants pay?"
He also asked the SG if food was being supplied to migrants who are waiting to be transported.
The Bench also asked who (originating state or receiving state) is providing the food to the migrants.
In response, Mehta said, "There are NGOs and self help groups who are catering to the workers. Over 92,000 meals have been served to the migrant workers as on May 26. Industry and employers have also fed the workers."
Justice Shah then said, "It is not that the government is not doing anything, but looking at the number of stranded migrants, some concrete steps need to be taken."
Justice Kaul asked the SG how long it will take to transport all the migrant workers to their home states.
Mehta responded that the Centre would file a comprehensive report soon, and that it could only give details of stranded migrants when the state governments provide such information. He added, "We have shifted over 1 crore migrant workers. But there are also workers who did not shift due to the reopening of activities. Migrants are walking because of anxiety or local level instigation where they are said 'walk now, trains won't run, lockdown is extended'."
The Bench pressed the SG to reveal a timeline within which the migrants would be transported. Justice Bhushan said, "There needs to be a time in place which the migrant worker has to wait within which he will be transported and also be provided food and facilities in the interim."
Mehta replied that he needed feedback from the states, and that he was "not shifting responsibility". He clarified further that there was an understanding between the states with regard to sending and receiving migrant labourers, says the report published by BarandBench.com.
The court made it clear that it wanted a uniform policy on this aspect.
"In India, the middleman will always be there. But we don’t want middlemen to interfere when it comes to payment of fares. There has to be a clear uniform policy on who will pay. If the mechanism is different for all states, then it will create confusion," it said.
It went on to note that some issues have to be addressed, and that the Centre and the states need to understand the court's concerns.
Mehta went on to comment on the "prophets of doom" who have been criticising the governments' failure to deal with the migrant crisis.
"Centre is doing a lot to prevent COVID-19 but there are prophets of doom in our country who only spread negativity, negativity, negativity. These arm chair intellectuals do not recognize the nation's effort," he said.
He went on to claim that persons writing to the Supreme Court asking it to take cognisance of the issue were "earning in crores".
The SG went on to state that some high courts were running "parallel governments".
Senior Advocate PS Narasimha, appearing for the UP government, said, "I completely agree with Solicitor General. Almost 18 lakh persons have been shifted and 1335 trains have been running. 176 trains have been commissioned...There are camps too for labourers."
Advocate Manish Kumar, appearing for the state of Bihar, submitted that close to 10 lakh people have reached the state by road and that quarantine facilities were in place for them.
Advocate Manish Singhvi, appearing for Rajasthan, informed the court that the state had received 7.5 lakh persons till now.
When Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for Delhi Shramik Sangathan, SG Mehta said, "Please do not make it a political platform. Before addressing, please speak about your contribution."
Sibal retorted, "A lot! Don't make it personal."
Mehta replied, "I am only speaking about your client."
The Court asked Sibal for his suggestion and nothing else. To this, he said, "It's a humanitarian crisis. If you don't want me to assist, I won't. I am not here for politics."
He went on to say, "All responsibility has been shifted to state governments. That’s why people are walking. It has nothing to do with politics. In one month, 91 lakh have been transported, then as per census, they will take 3 months to complete the process. So what is the plan?"
He added, "When someone comes to register how does he register? There are migrants who don't speak the Hindi language or the language of the state they live in. What about food? Giving pulses is not enough. Where will they cook? Shramik Trains have no concept of social distancing."
Towards the end of the hearing, the Court proceeded to grant the state governments time to file counters.
However, Senior Advocate Indira Jaising objected to this, stating that everyone has been heard apart from the migrant workers. Pointing out that only 3% of the India Railways' trains were functional at present, she said, "The Solicitor General says we cannot divert trains used for essential commodities, but there are a total of about 4 crore migrants waiting to go home."
When SG Mehta stated that migrants who don't want to shift were being "instigated" to shift, Jaising replied, "We are giving you statistics based on the press release issued by the Indian Railways."
Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for a migrant labour union, said, "When lockdown extends and mass migration begins, then there is a real risk. Given the current figures, it will take 6-8 months for all migrants to get back home."
Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala, said, "A migrant is reaching the station without knowing whether he is going to get in the train. There are district wise lists. SG is saying 100% of the ticket is given by the state. But states have no money."
The court then proceed to dictate its order, stating that there are several lapses and difficulties which are being noticed in process of registration, transportation, and provision food and shelter to migrants. Even after registration, workers wait from weeks and months to board buses or trains, and a large number can be seen on foot, the court observed.
Noting that some of states have not filed any response in the matter, the Court decided to give a reasonable amount of time to states, union territories, and the Centre to bring on record the steps taken by them to address the issues.
The Court also issued the following interim directions:
- No fare either by train or bus will be charged from migrant workers. Railways to share fare.
- All migrants who are stranded shall be provided food by the concerned state at places publicized and notified to them, so that they can make both ends meet. While they wait for their turn to board trains or buses, they can survive this way.
- Originating state should provide food and water and thereafter, food to be provided by Railways. Receiving state shall give transport, food and meals from stations to their villages.
- States shall speed up registration of migrant workers and build help desks near places where they are stranded. Complete information needs to be publicized so that migrants are aware of this.
- Whenever a migrant is found walking on the road they will be taken to the camps at the earliest and provided with facilities.
The Court will take up the matter next on June 5.
On May 26, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the problems faced by migrant labourers “who have been stranded in different parts of the country.”
The court had issued notice to the Centre and all states and union territories, directing them to submit their responses to tackle this “urgent” situation.
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Published: 28 May 2020, 5:07 PM