A man eats free food being distributed by a voluntary humanitarian organisation to the needy people in Chennai on May 24, 2021.(AFP)
A man eats free food being distributed by a voluntary humanitarian organisation to the needy people in Chennai on May 24, 2021.(AFP)

Provide ration, meals to migrants, Supreme Court tells states

The directives were, in effect, an extension to all states of the instructions given by the top court to the National Capital Region states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana for migrants stranded in and around NCR.
By Abraham Thomas, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 25, 2021 02:34 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Monday told states that stranded migrants across the country must be given free dry ration and cooked food through community kitchens, in directions that sought to reduce the problems faced by unorganised sector workers rendered jobless during Covid lockdowns.

The directives were, in effect, an extension to all states of the instructions given by the top court to the National Capital Region states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana for migrants stranded in and around NCR.

States will be free to either utilise the foodgrain received under the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme, or provide them under any state-specific scheme. “We direct that migrant workers wherever stranded throughout the country should be provided the dry ration under the Atmanirbhar Scheme or any other scheme found suitable by the States/Centre,” the bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah said.

On providing cooked food, the bench directed the states and Union territories to open sufficient community kitchens for migrant workers. “There shall be wide publicity with respect to the various schemes including the places of community kitchens so that such needy persons may in fact take benefits,” the bench said.

The orders came in a suo moto proceeding initiated by the top court in the light of problems faced by migrants across the country,

The Court also identified the slow registration of workers in the unorganised sector as a major implementation flaw in schemes for their benefit. It pointed out that the Union labour ministry was working for well over a year on a National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW), which would include migrant and construction workers. “We are of the view that for accessing of any benefit percolating from any scheme framed by the Centre or the states for the benefit of unorganised workers or migrant workers, registration of workers is essential, which registration shall facilitate the unorganized workers to assess the scheme and reap the benefit,” the bench observed.

The work on the database started after the Supreme Court in 2018 directed the labour ministry to set up a portal for registration of unorganised workers, and make it available to states. The Code of Social Security Act, 2020, by which the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, stood repealed, also envisaged the registration of unorganised workers, gig workers, and platform workers.

The court asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta to file an affidavit within two weeks, informing them about the progress of NDUW and the Social Security Code. The judges also urged states to collaborate with the Centre on completing the NDUW at the earliest.

Most states told the court that workers were not coming forward to register, and some contractors refused to cooperate with government queries. “These are illiterate and downtrodden people. How will they cope up with online registration? Our main concern is that benefits should reach the needy persons. If they (migrant workers) are not coming, the Government must reach them and identify them,” the bench responded.

The bench also underlined the need for a suitable mechanism to monitor and supervise whether the benefits of the welfare schemes reach people. “On paper, the Government says it has spent crores of rupees, but they must also reach the needy,” the bench said.

In May last, the top court took up a suo moto petition following media reports showing the mass exodus of migrant labourers from cities on foot and cycles, travelling for long distances without food, water or transport. The Court directed all states and UTs to arrange transport for stranded migrants by rail and road. Further, Court directed food and water to be supplied to them. In addition, the states which received migrants were to maintain data of workers who returned, their skill, and details of previous employment at the block, district and village level.

Some civil rights activists, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, informed the court that the NCR states were yet to provide dry ration under the Atmanirbhar scheme, as directed by the court on May 13, and that very few community kitchens were functioning.

Citing an example of Delhi, where construction workers were provided a cash incentive of 5000, the applicants demanded similar benefits to be extended to migrant workers, rickshaw pullers, and street vendors. But the bench refused, saying, “Cash transfer is a matter of policy and scheme framed by each State/Union Territory and no direction for cash transfer can be issued by this Court to any category of person unless they are covered by any scheme formulated by the State/Union territory.”

The Court noted that several states were providing cash benefits ranging from 1,000 to 6,000, and sought details of such schemes from all states and UTs by the next date expected to be on June 11.

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