Migrants can’t be made to pay for travel, says Supreme Court

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByMurali Krishnan, New Delhi
May 29, 2020 12:08 AM IST

The Supreme Court issued a seven-point interim order that said it was the job of the state to provide them food and transport and that they cannot be charged for their travel.

The Supreme Court finally intervened to protect the interests of stranded migrant workers on Thursday, issuing a seven-point interim order that said it was the job of the state to provide them food and transport and that they cannot be charged for their travel, and asking the Union government, represented by solicitor general Tushar Mehta, a volley of questions on the logistics of ferrying workers back home on trains and buses, including the time they have to wait for transport. The court also remarked that no state can refuse to take back migrant workers.

Migrant workers in Mumbai wait to catch a bus to the Bandra railway station on Thursday.(Pratik Chorge/HT)
Migrant workers in Mumbai wait to catch a bus to the Bandra railway station on Thursday.(Pratik Chorge/HT)

The apex court’s intervention came two days after it took suo motu (on its own) cognisance of the travails of migrant workers, around two months after it seemed to buy Mehta’s contention that there wasn’t a single migrant worker on the roads walking back home, and 12 days after it said it couldn’t prevent migrants from taking to the roads to walk back home or monitor their movements.

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“No fare either by train or by bus shall be charged from any migrant workers. The railway fare shall be shared by the States as per their arrangement as submitted by the learned Solicitor General and in no case any fare should be asked or charged from any migrant workers by the States and the Railways,” the interim order said.

A three-judge bench of the court headed by justice Ashok Bhushan heard the case through video conference and also backed a uniform policy in order to do away with any kind of confusion in dealing with the migrant crisis. In a two-and-a-half -hour hearing, it posed a series of questions to Mehta on various aspects.

Migrant workers, many left jobless and homeless after their workplaces or work sites shut during the ongoing lockdown imposed on March 25 to fight the spread of the coronavirus disease, have struggled to get home. In the absence of any public transport, many started walking or cycling back home in March. Some were turned away at state borders and housed in migrant worker camps; others managed to slip through borders. It was only in late April that the home ministry came up with a protocol to transport them by buses. Soon after, on May 1, the rail ministry announced Shramik Special trains for them. Since then, and till May 27, Mehta told the court, around 3,700 such trains have run, transporting five million people back home. But many are still awaiting trains. Some do not have the documentation to register for them. There has also been confusion over who pays for the tickets (some migrants HT’s reporters have spoken to have paid out of their pocket). And the Centre and the states have scrapped over the trains.

The return migration has been peppered with tragic incidents — migrants have died on road accidents; 16 were run over by a goods train; and according to news reports on Thursday, at least nine people died on Shramik Special trains in the past 48 hours. In the court, Mehta suggested those walking had been misguided into doing so by some people.

Interestingly, between the time the Supreme Court said it couldn’t do anything to migrants taking to the roads and its Tuesday decision to take up the matter, several high courts, including the Madras and the Andhra high courts, criticised the way the Centre and the states have handled the crisis. A group of 21 lawyers from Delhi and Mumbai wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday, criticising its approach. “We address this letter because we believe that the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s failure to protect the rights of the hapless millions of migrant workers in March and its failure to scrutinise carefully the executive’s actions, which resulted in them (migrant labourers) being compelled to stay in cramped unhygienic accommodation without employment and wages and often without proper food and with a much higher risk of Covid infection,” the letter said. HT reported details of the letter on May 27.

On Thursday, the three-judge bench that also included justices SK Kaul and MR Shah, asked Indian Railways and states where special trains for migrants are originating to provide food and water to the workers, and directed the authorities to take people found walking to shelter homes. The court asked originating states and railways to provide food and water to migrants during train journeys, as is the current practice. The bench also ordered that states should simplify the process of registration of migrant workers.

“The State shall try to endeavour that after registration the workers should be asked to board the train or bus at the earliest...,” the order said. The receiving states should provide transport, health screening and other facilities free of cost, the court added.

The court said replies by states and the Centre in the case will have to filed within a week. The case will be heard next on June 5. Various private parties have sought intervention in the case, including NGOs and Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala.

“We are of the view that in the responses which are to be filed by the Central Government and the State Governments, all necessary details regarding the number of migrant workers, the plan to transport them to their destination, the mechanism of registration and other details should be brought on the record. The learned Solicitor General has also submitted that an estimated time period and the plan for transportation of all stranded workers shall also be intimated in the reply,” the court said.

Mehta, asked about who pays for migrants’ journeys back home, said it was either the states receiving them or those sending them. “In some cases, the money is reimbursed by the receiving state,” he said. The bench noted that such a policy creates confusion and underscored the need for a uniform policy. The issue of train tickets has triggered a controversy in the past, with opposition parties accusing the Centre of making migrants pay. The Centre has maintained that the journey is subsidised.

Mehta said since May 1, altogether 9.1 million migrant workers have been ferried to their hometowns by trains and buses till Wednesday. The court asked whether the people being transported were asked “to shell out any money at any stage”.

The court also said no state should have the right to reject workers coming back. “There is no question...They are all citizens of India,” Mehta replied.

Mehta also complained to the court about “prophets of doom” who keep spreading what he called misinformation. “The Centre is doing a lot to prevent Covid-19, but there are prophets of doom in our country who only spread negativity, negativity, negativity,” Mehta said.

He objected to the arguments of senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was representing NGO Delhi Shramik Sangathan. “It’s a humanitarian crisis. Nothing to do with politics. Don’t make it personal,” Sibal said.

In his arguments, Sibal said the Centre failed to prescribe the minimum standards for shelter, food, drinking water, medical cover and sanitation under the Disaster Management Act. “There has to be coordination between national, state and district plans,” he said. Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Sujrewala, who has filed an application on the issue, said: “A large number of points of departure or arrival do not have relief camps. There are groups of people standing at the bus stations and railway stations. There is no supporting camp. No state or nationwide plan.”

Senior advocate Santosh Paul told HT an early judicial intervention could have avoided a tragedy at a large scale. “This judicial intervention is welcome, but it has come after two months of tragic consequences of the lockdown, hunger and inevitable migration,” he said.

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