[COVID-19 Migrant Crisis] 90% of migrants already transported, argues SG Tushar Mehta; Supreme Court reserves order for June 9

Debayan Roy

The Supreme Court today reserved its order in the suo motu PIL on the COVID-19 migrant crisis. The Bench will pronounce its verdict on June 9.

The Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul, and MR Shah today heard various counsel appearing for states and other organisations.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that he had filed an affidavit regarding the Shramik Special Trains operating to take migrants back home. He said that till June 3, the Indian Railways had offered 4,228 such trains. He went on to say,

"Approximately 1 crore migrant workers have reached destination. UP, which was receiving state, got 1695 trains. Maximum trains ended in UP and Bihar."

Justice Bhushan intervened to ask,

"This is all okay. How many workers are still stranded? What is your estimate?"

Mehta replied that only the states can provide such information, and that the Centre was in constant touch with them.

"We require a total of 171 trains now. States for administrative reasons want trains on specific dates. Karnataka wants on June 6, Kerala wants on June 8, etc."

When Justice Bhushan queried as to Maharashtra's request for trains, SG Mehta said that 800 trains were already used for Maharashtra, and that the Director of the State Executive Committee of Maharashtra under the Disaster Management Act wanted only 1 more train. He added,

"Many trains are returning empty. This may be because migrants are joining industries again."

Justice Bhushan then said,

"We can grant 15 days time so that all states get back with their demands for trains. This has been going on for very long now...There is a need to register all migrants, specifically state and district wise. We need to know what kind of schemes are prevalent in the state."

Justice Ashok Bhushan

Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves then interjected, saying,

"The registration system is not working. Migrants are getting frustrated and thus the migrants who want to go back is half of the actual numbers."

When the Bench invited solutions, Gonsalves pointed out that the contractor operating registration of migrant workers for these trains was asking questions to the migrants in English. This can be changed, he said.

Senior Advocate Indira Jaising added that pre-booking registration is creating problems. She said,

"They should be treated like normal travellers. The trains need to be announced a week before so that migrants can make use of it."

At this point, SG Mehta said,

"I emphatically reiterate that intervenors should not be allowed to address the Court, especially those who did not contribute in COVID management."

Jaising shot back,

"I take strong objection to this. We have contributed perhaps more than anyone else."

Appearing for the state governments of Assam and Gujarat, Senior Advocate Maninder Singh said,

"Centre has done sufficiently. No further detailed examination is required. Situation has improved to 100%. For Gujarat, out of 23 lakh (migrant workers), 2.5 lakh remain as they want to work. Over 20 lakh have already been transported."

Counsel for State of Maharashtra Rahul Chitnis said that there are only 38,000 migrants remaining, and that the state needed only one more train.

Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain, appearing for NCT Delhi, submitted that the Delhi government has deposited Rs 9 crore with Railways for fares of migrant workers to travel to their home town.

"This payment has been made in advance. We have complied with your orders."

He added that migrants were being given food and shelter, and that only 2 lakh migrants remained to be transported.

SubmiSenior Advocate PS Narasimha, appearing for the State of Uttar Pradesh, claimed that the state government never charged for travel and food for migrants. Now only 3,206 migrant workers remain to be transported, he said.

Justice Bhushan then asked,

"But how many from UP are still stranded across the country?"

Naramsimha replied,

"We are getting feedback from some migrants that they want to continue working in other states. For others, we are taking care of their health till the last mile. Now we have reached equilibrium."

Submissions were also made on behalf of counsel appearing for the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and West Bengal, among others.

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal then posed the query,

"We must know what is the minimum standard for food, water etc. Was it followed by state government and monitored?"

Justice Bhushan said that the Centre would be directed to ensure this.

Sibal further said that the registration process needs to be decentralized so that migrants can approach police stations and can manually register.

Jaising agreed, saying,

"The primary issue is demand is being unreported. The registration process is complex and it is in English. The questions being asked in such forms is problematic. For this, announce train number and name one week in advance. Let registration be from police stations."

She also suggested that workers be paid Rs. 10,000 per month and that 1 kg of Dal be given to each of the families. She added,

"Many workers have been slapped with FIRs for violating lockdown and walking for searching transport for homes. Let's not add insult to injury and humiliate them more. This is a biological disaster and these people are called internally displaced people."

Indira Jaising

Later, Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi then sought to make submissions. He said that those who have been lucky enough to reach their hometowns are being preventing entry.

To this, SG Mehta replied,

"It used to happen initially as they feared spread of COVID."

Singhvi further stated,

"Manipur had one case and now it has 132 cases. They say it was because of migrants. It was primarily because the way migranrs were kept for 5 to 8 days after they reached the state. These illness-free migrants are being subjected to these infections."

Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta, appearing for MP Mahua Moitra urged the Court to recall its order dismissing the application filed by his client in the matter.

Justice Bhushan replied,

"She is a respectable Member of Parliament. If we allow this, it will become a chaotic situation. We have assistance of Union, states, counsel. If you want to say something, say something and give suggestions."

He then made a case for de-centralisation of the registration process, an idea that was seconded by Senior Advocate KV Viswanathan, appearing for a group of alumni of National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

To this suggestion, SG Mehta responded,

"Regarding decentralization of the registration process, if we make it open for all, then people will fight for trains in the station. A system has worked well to transport 90% of migrants and only 10% is remaining. Let the same system continue."

He added,

"We have crossed the threshold of the real problem we were facing. Clients of Mr Viswanathan (NLSIU Alumni) are always welcome to help and they have done too."

After taking the suggestions on board, the Bench reserved its order for Tuesday, June 9.

On May 26, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the problems faced by migrant labourers “who have been stranded in different parts of the country.”

The Court had issued notice to the Centre and all states and union territories, directing them to submit their responses to tackle this “urgent” situation.

On the last date of hearing, the Supreme Court made it clear that migrants seeking to return to their home states will not be charged train and bus fares.

That hearing was marred with controversy, with SG Mehta commenting on the "prophets of doom" who have been criticising the governments' failure to deal with the migrant crisis. He said,

"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."

He went on to claim that persons writing to the Supreme Court asking it to take cognisance of the issue were "earning in crores".

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