Migrant workers may want to go home, says Supreme Court

Top court hears plea seeking rations, food for labourers

Scared, unemployed and hungry, migrant workers may just want to go home and will hardly care for the finer nuances of “national” and “mini” lockdowns imposed by the government on the populace, the Supreme Court said on Monday.

“Whether it was the national lockdown in 2020 or mini lockdowns in 2021, psychologically the attitude of migrant workers remains the same — they would want to go home,” Justice M.R. Shah addressed the Centre.

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Shah was hearing a suo motu case to provide migrant labourer families marooned in big cities dry rations and cooked food and public transport to workers travelling home to their villages, where they think they would be safe from the clutches of the virus.

Justice Shah’s remark came when the government said the situation in 2021 was different from last year, when the entire nation was shut down to curb infection.

Responding quickly, the government submitted it had opened control rooms. But the Centre said it was the responsibility of States to provide cooked food for stranded migrant workers.

The court, not quite taken in by the submissions, referred to an affidavit filed by the government. Justice Bhushan said the document mentioned only people covered under the Food Security Act, that is, people with ration cards. The court said unorganised labourers, wandering from one place of work to another in mega cities, cannot be expected to have ration cards.

The court asked the Centre to file a further affidavit detailing everything it has done to provide dry rations to migrant workers under the Atmanirbhar scheme.

Initially, during the beginning of the hearing, Justice Bhushan sounded sceptical, wondering whether the migrants’ plight in the second wave was as bad as last year. Justices Bhushan and Shah had passed a plethora of orders for the welfare of the migrant workers in 2020.

“This time the situation is not as grim as last time,” Justice Bhushan said.

“In fact, it is grimmer this time… Public health has been more severely affected in the second wave. As a result, more people have again lost their jobs,” advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has accused the Centre and States of a lacklustre approach towards migrant workers.

Mr. Bhushan said 24 crore people had been pushed under the poverty line. He said States like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh should provide migrants cooked food in government schools.

“People are dying because of lack of food and health. Yes, the situation is worse than last year… Rickshaw pullers, vendors and other categories of unorganised workers are starving,” Mr. Bhushan disagreed with the judge.

The lawyer pushed for the court to direct the States to evolve a cash transfer mechanism to help these destitute workers stay alive. “Ultimately, the money will come back into the economy. These people will use the cash to buy food and essentials… our growth rate is –20%,” Mr. Bhushan prodded.

Justice Bhushan said any such cash transfers would be based on separate policies of individual States, and the court could look into the issue.

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