The Supreme Court on Thursday put three questions to the Centre on the plight of migrant workers during the lockdown: did the migrants pay for their ticket, who paid for their food on trains and who is ensuring that migrants are not hungry?
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, S.K. Kaul and M.R. Shah queried the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta. “You still haven’t informed us who is paying for their ticket.”
Mehta replied that either it is the sending state or receiving state, as there is an interstate agreement. The bench queried further: “What about the states? How are the migrants supposed to get reimbursement? Migrants would not know which state has to pay.”
The bench said migrants may not know how to get reimbursement from a state or about the available transport. “There needs to be a uniform policy”, added the bench.
The court observed that if the mechanism is different for all states (in certain scenarios the originating state will pay, in others the receiving state will pay), then it will create confusion. Mehta responded it depends on how many migrants are in question. “It has all been decided between the states”, he added.
Justice Kaul asked Mehta: “How do you ensure that nobody asks the migrants to pay or troubles him? What we are saying is that the migrants should be least concerned with the means of payment”, added the bench.
The bench asked what is the normal time, after identification, to send back migrant workers — a week or 10 days? It said no state should decline from accepting migrant workers. “No state should say no, no, don’t come or we will not take you”, noted the bench, insisting on a policy on the issue.
Citing middleman, the bench noted that there should be a clear policy as to who will pay for their travel.
Mehta told the court that 91 lakh migrants have travelled back between May 1 and May 27, and a total of 3,700 special trains have been used to ferry them.
The bench then queried the Centre on issues connected with supply of food. “With food surpluses available with the Food Corporation of India, is food being supplied to these people or not? Why should there be a food shortage among people?…We accept that it is not possible to transport everybody at the same time. But food and shelter must be given till they can get transport. Who is providing it?” asked the bench.
Mehta replied they are being provided food. “This is an unprecedented crisis and we are taking unprecedented measures”, replied Mehta.
The bench observed that the government is taking measures, but looking at the number of stranded migrants, some concrete steps need to be taken.
On May 26, the apex court had taken cognizance of the plight of migrant workers and asked the Centre and states to provide them transport, food and shelter immediately free of cost.