Speaking for migrant workers | HT Editorial
The Supreme Court (SC) has finally spoken on the “problems and miseries of migrant workers”. On Thursday, after extensively hearing the government (represented by solicitor general Tushar Mehta), a set of states, and others representing migrant workers and organisations, the court ordered that migrant workers must not be charged any fare for train or bus journeys; be provided with food while returning home in trains and buses; be provided transport as early as possible after they have registered with the states; and taken to the nearest shelter and provided food and other amenities if found on the road, stranded and walking. It has also asked the Centre to provide details on the number of migrants waiting to return home, the plans for transportation, and mechanisms for registration.
The plight of migrant workers, and their exodus back to their villages, represents one of the most serious humanitarian crises independent India has ever faced. The lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic left poor migrant workers without any income and food. Governments across the board fared poorly in providing an adequate security net or anticipating their desire to return home. Tens of thousands of workers began walking home, across the breadth of the country. Thirty-six days after the lockdown, the government decided on allowing their movement. The solicitor general’s figures suggest close to 10 million workers have got back home — but this has been a process marked by suffering and chaos. Migrants have had to wait for long before getting their turn; trains have gone off schedule or off course; millions of others remain stranded: many are still walking home. The human tragedy is enormous, exemplified by an image of a toddler trying to wake his mother, who died allegedly due to hunger, heat and dehydration (although some reports say she was already unwell), at a train station in Bihar.
This newspaper has been critical of the SC’s earlier reluctance to take up the issue of migrant workers. But belated as it may be, its intervention is positive. What was disturbing was Mr Mehta’s assertion that a few isolated incidents were being exaggerated by “prophets of doom” and workers were being instigated to walk home. Media reports and civil society interventions played a key part in exposing the scale of the crisis. His comment is also insulting to the agency of migrant workers. The government has, over the past month, made efforts to enable smooth movement. It must, along with states, abide by the SC’s directives and improve processes to get citizens back home. The SC should keep a strict eye on the executive to ensure a humane approach to the crisis.