SC finally takes suo motu cognisance of migrant workers' plight after saying 'can't monitor who walks on roads'; issues notices to Centre, state govts

Supreme Court of India finally broke its silence on the misery of migrant workers on Tuesday, more than two months after millions of poor labourers were left without jobs in industrial cities, miles away from their homes.

FP Staff May 26, 2020 20:50:53 IST
SC finally takes suo motu cognisance of migrant workers' plight after saying 'can't monitor who walks on roads'; issues notices to Centre, state govts

After months of misery and uncertainty faced by migrant workers in the wake of the sudden lockdown, the Supreme Court has finally taken suo motu cognisance of the matter and issued notices to the Centre and all state governments.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah noted in their notice to the governments of India and all states and UTs that despite several steps taken to ensure the well-being of migrant, lapses on the administrations' part cannot be ruled out.

SC finally takes suo motu cognisance of migrant workers plight after saying cant monitor who walks on roads issues notices to Centre state govts

File image of the Supreme Court of India. AP

"Although the Government of India and state governments have taken measures, yet there have been inadequacies and certain lapses," the notice read.

The apex court asked the Centre, states and Union Territories to file a reply by 28 May, and listed the matter for further hearing on the same day. The top court also asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to appear before the court and list out the steps taken to redeem the situation.

The court's intervention comes after two months of the lockdown and after millions were forced to walk home, after being faced with a dearth of money and shelter. The court's silence was noticeable at a time when heartbreaking stories like that of a father not being able to make it to his infant son's funeral, or a teenager cycling 1200 kilometres to get her father medical aide came to light, defining the unprecedented migrant crisis.  It also comes after much criticism of the court's earlier stance, where a bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao and comprising Justices SK Kaul and BR Gavai said that the courts can't possibly be expected to "monitor or stop" those walking on the roads.

"How can we stop them from walking? It is impossible for this court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking."

"Let the state decide. Why should the court hear or decide?" the bench had said quashing a petition raising points very similar to the ones noted in the suo motu notice issued on Tuesday.

The plea was filed by advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava after 16 migrants sleeping on railway tracks were run over by a goods train in Maharashtra's Aurangabad area.

Reports also quoted the court as reprimanding the petitioner for filing a "petition totally based on newspaper clippings".

"Every advocate reads something suddenly and then you want us to decide issues under Article 32 of the Constitution of India based on your knowledge of newspapers? Will you go and implement government directives? We will give you a special pass and you go and check," the court had said while dismissing Srivastava's petition.

Ever since the nationwide lockdown, as a measure to curb the spread of coronavirus , began on 24 March, reports have documented tens of thousands of migrants, rendered jobless, attempting to return to their villages in other states. Visuals of hundreds of people trudging home, or even being forced to take undignified means to reach home have gone viral. A video of migrant labourers breaking into a Gujarat eatery and cooking themselves a meal, instead of stealing any thing had gone viral. Another visual of close to twenty people crammed into a concrete mixer also came to light.

Many have died of exhaustion on the way, while several others have been victims of road and rail accidents as they tread thousands of kilometres on foot.

"They walked, took rides on trucks and autos, or even cycled in their desperation to reach the safety of home. Many lost their lives before they could reach, either from hunger and exhaustion or in accidents," NDTV reported.

Meanwhile, as Firstpost report noted, a report published by SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) found that "of the 17,000 workers that reached out to them, only 6 percent have been paid their full wages during the lockdown and more than 99 percent of the self-employed — which includes painters, welders and electricians, among others — did not get paid at all".

"Remember that the majority of them work on contract basis and send their earnings home. The lockdown, when announced, hurt them the most because overnight they had no income and they couldn’t return home, either," the report added.

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