Migrant Crisis: In SC today, SG Tushar Mehta calls govt detractors 'prophets of doom', says receiving or host states paying fares for transporting workers

The Supreme Court on Thursday finally intervened in the migrant crisis unfolding since a punishing lockdown was imposed over two months ago at four-hours' notice.

FP Staff May 29, 2020 09:58:12 IST
Migrant Crisis: In SC today, SG Tushar Mehta calls govt detractors 'prophets of doom', says receiving or host states paying fares for transporting workers

The Supreme Court of India, while hearing a suo motu case on the plight of migrant workers under the current lockdown, asked some searching questions from the Centre ranging from as to how long they will have to wait before going to their native places to who will pay for their travel and provide them food and shelter.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta kept mum on the topic of providing a timeline for arranging transport for all stranded workers. He instead, blamed critics of the government and those approaching the courts over the migrant tragedy saying they are not acknowledging efforts made by the government. "These prophets of doom don’t even have the patriotism to acknowledge" Centre's efforts in managing the crisis.

In fact, Mehta sought that those appealing for relief for migrant workers from the courts, or questioning the government about the same, should be made to file affidavits proving there own contribution to help those languishing on roads.

Migrant Crisis In SC today SG Tushar Mehta calls govt detractors prophets of doom says receiving or host states paying fares for transporting workers

File image of Supreme Court. Reuters

SG says migrant workers walking home due to anxiety; blames 'armchair intellectuals' for 'negativity'

In his opening remark, Mehta thanked the court for hearing the issue but lamented the fact that few unfortunate events were played up by some people.

We are immensely grateful to SC for taking cognizance of the issue. Due to this, state and Centre has an August forum now to discuss the migrant crisis issue. Some unfortunate things have happened and it is being flashed again and again," Mehta told the court.

Mehta also questioned the motive of all those who have been petitioning the courts about easing the migrant workers' misery, and lashed out upon supposed "armchair intellectuals" for spreading negativity and "not appreciating nation's efforts"

"Centre is doing a lot to prevent COVID-19 but there are Prophets of Doom in our country who only spread negativity, negativity, negativity. These arm chair intellectuals do not recognize the nation's effort."

"These prophets of doom don’t even have the patriotism to acknowledge this," Mehta added.

Recalling Kevin Carter's Pulitzer-winning photograph of a vulture and a starving child in Sudan, "There was a vulture and a panic-stricken child. The vulture was waiting for the child to die. He photographed it and the photo was published in NYT and the photographer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He committed suicide after four months. He was not an activist. He was not running an NGO. He was a man with a conscience," Mehta said continuing his attack.

Mehta suggested that all those filing public interest litigation of writ petitions on the ongoing crisis, should be made to file affidavits "proving their credentials about what they have done (for easing the migrant crisis)"

"All these letters who which have been addressed to the court to persuade SC to take suo motu cognizance of this issue have been written by people who are earning in crores... All these intervenors have to file an affidavit whereby they should show their credentials about what have they done? Don't let anyone use this platform to become a political platform. Let the impleadment applicant file affidavit on what their contribution is?," Bar and Bench quoted Mehta as saying.

Mehta again brought up the issue when senior advocate and Congress leader Kapil Sibal started addressing the bench.

"Please do not make it a political platform. Before addressing please speak about your contribution," Mehta told Sibal just as he rose to speak.

"Don't make it personal," Sibal shot back.

As the lockdown continued, thousands of migrant workers poured out on the street, willing to walk hundreds of kilometres in absence of jobs to continue supporting their expenses of living in the cities. Scores of people died in accidents or due to hunger and exhaustion.

Mehta, however, said that the migrant workers were walking home due to anxiety.

"Migrant workers are walking because of anxiety or local level instigation where they are told 'walk now, trains won't run. Lockdown extended',"Mehta said.

SG Mehta relies on state govts for data on migrant workers

Solicitor Tushar Mehta reeled off several facts about the shramik trains being run to ferry migrant workers home, and the preparations made by the Centre to ease the crisis. "We have shifted over 1 crore migrant labourers... Over 92,000 meals have been served to the migrant workers as on 26 May. Industry and employers have also fed the workers."

Mehta, however, could not specify how much time the Centre will need to transport the migrant workers willing to go home.

"What is the estimation of time that is required to shift the migrants? What are the arrangements being made? What is the mechanism in place? Do the people know if they’ll be shifted on 5th day, 7th day or 10th day?" the court asked. Mehta said, "I need to take feedback from the states. I am not shifting responsibility."

When asked to give details about the number of stranded workers who are still awaiting help, Mehta said, "We have worked over night to file this report. Will file comprehensive report soon. We can only give details of stranded migrants when the state government provides us the information."

He also said that either the receiving or the host states were to pay the fare for transporting migrant workers, admitting that earlier some states had made the labourers pay for the tickets.

"Initially decision was it cannot be at the central level. There was a need to decentralize it and states will look after it. Some states charged them initially and some have given free travel. Then it was decided that railways will recieve fare from either originating state or recieving state but migrants are not made to pay anymore."

The Centre had earlier claimed that it would bear 85 percent of the cost of sending the migrant workers home. There was no clarification on whether it is inclusive of the 47 percent subsidy applicable on all tickets.

Sibal questions lack of national policy; migrant bodies say crisis may continue for 6 months

"There is a Disaster Management act. Under this a national plan has to be prepared... All responsibility has been shifted to state governments. that’s why people are walking. It has nothing to do with politics. In one month 91 lakhs have been transported then as per census they will take 3 months to complete the process. So what is the plan??" Sibal was quoted as saying by Bar and Bench.

Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves appearing for a migrant labour organisation made a similar submission. He said that given the current figures, it will take 6-8 months for all migrant workers to get back home. He said that food and shelter were immediate needs and the migrant workers cannot wait for online registrations, according to Live Law

Court offers interim relief

The Supreme Court issued an interim order stating that no migrant worker should be charged for travelling to their home towns and made it obligatory for states to provide food and shelter for those languishing on roads.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and MR Shah asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, about the confusion over the payment of travel fare of stranded migrant workers and said that they should not made to pay for their journey back home.

"What is the normal time? If a migrant is identified, there must be some certainty that he will be shifted out within one week or ten days at most? What is that time? There had been instances where one state sends migrants but at the border another State says we are not accepting the migrants. We need a policy on this," the bench told Mehta.

The bench, questioning him over the travel-fare for the migrant workers, said: "In our country, the middlemen will always be there. But we don't want middlemen to interfere when it comes to payment of fares. There has to be a clear policy as to who will pay for their travel."

The court heard detailed responses from the Centre about the steps taken so far to manage the crisis and send stranded workers home. The matter has been rescheduled for 5 June.

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