The SC should have been more proactive in tackling the migrant crisis
India’s poorest need help. The government has to do its bit. But the courts can help, with more sensitivity and direction.Updated: May 15, 2020 17:14 IST
Besides handling the rising number of Covid-19 cases, and taking steps to mitigate the economic distress caused by the pandemic and the lockdown, the single most pressing issue for India at the moment is the fate of its migrant workers. For over 50 days now, millions of stranded workers, facing an acute shortage of food and cash, have desperately tried to return home. Tragic tales of families walking hundreds of kilometres abound. Five weeks after the lockdown was imposed, the government finally introduced measures to enable stranded migrants to return home — a process which is ongoing, but which has not stopped thousands of others from continuing to walk back home.
While the political executive has been correctly held accountable for its failure in addressing the plight of migrant workers in a timely and sensitive manner, it is also important to look at the role of another institution which should have done more in this period, to address this crisis — the judiciary. On Friday, dismissing a petition which asked that the Centre be directed to identify and then provide food and shelter to migrant workers returning home, the Supreme Court said it was a matter for the states to decide. The Court, it added, could not monitor who was walking or not walking, neither could it stop them. Referring to the Aurangabad incident, where 16 migrant workers sleeping on railway tracks were mowed down by a train, the court observed that there was little that could do done if people were sleeping on the tracks.
Irrespective of the merits of the petition in question, the observations fit into a larger pattern of the court’s attitude towards the issue. It has accepted the claims of the executive too willingly; it could have done more to order relief and protective measures; and it should have ensured strict court monitoring of the entire process of identification of migrant workers, provision of food and shelter either where they are based on during their travel, and their transport. To their credit, in the backdrop of workers having to wait for as long as 19 hours to board trains, the Gujarat high court observed that there was lack of coordination among government departments on the issue and asked the government to be more sensitive to the plight of the most “downtrodden, underprivileged and weaker sections of society”, and instil confidence in them. The Karnataka high court has also done well in observing that workers can’t be deprived the opportunity of travelling home because of their inability to pay fares. India’s poorest need help. The government has to do its bit. But the courts can help, with more sensitivity and direction.