Migrant Workers’ COVID 19 Measures: PIL Update

There were two set of PILs that have been filed in the Supreme Court of India concerning the migrant workers:

A. Writ Petition No. 468/2020 titled “Alakh Alok Srivastava Vs UOI” (hereinafter referred to as “WP 1”) was filed by an Advocate practicing in the Supreme Court (Petitioner-in-Person), seeking immediate action to safeguard the rights of migrant workers, and also seeking directions for the state to provide them with essential necessities like food, drinking water, shelter and medical help.

Timeline of the Petition:

(i) 30.03.2020: Petition listed before CJI SA Bobde and Mr.Justice L.Nageswara Rao, when Court directed the Government to file a status report. Pursuant to this order, Centre filed its status report stating various steps taken by the Central and State Governments to curtail and deal with Coronavirus Disease in India.

(ii) 31.3.2020:  Court took note of the steps taken by the Centre and State Governments and also took note of the fake news doing the rounds on social media and passed certain directions;

(iii) 03.04.2020: Application filed by petitioner seeking directions to start using Hotels, Resorts, Government Guest Houses, State Bhavans and Sadans etc. as shelter homes for the migrant workers. The Court took note of submissions already made by the Union of India and refused to pass an order as the Centre was already dealing with the issue.

(iv) 07.04.2020: Fresh Application by Petitioner was listed, seeking amendment of prayers in the W.P. to include directions to rehabilitate migrant workers once the nationwide lockdown period gets over. After hearing the parties, and directed the matter to be listed after 2 weeks.

Claims made by the Petitioner: In the PIL, the petitioners claimed that the migrant workers were severely affected by the 21-day nation-wide lockdown ordered by the Government in view of the global pandemic caused by Coronavirus Disease. It was contended that due to this, the daily wage workers were severely affected as their means of livelihood had come to a sudden halt. With no help coming from the Government, and instigated by fake news circulated on social media, there was a mass exodus of the migrant workers from their work place to their native villages/ towns all across the nation. Hence the petitioner prayed for a direction to the UOI to immediately identify the moving/stranded migrant workers and shift them to the nearest government shelter homes or accommodation and provide them with proper food, clean drinking water and medicines under medical supervision, in a dignified manner.

Vide the Amendment Application, Petitioner subsequently also sought following: (i) reliefs regarding a composite plan for rehabilitation of aggrieved workers, such as free transportation, one month statutory wage to each migrant, one month free ration, after the lockdown was over[1]; (ii) Sought setting up of a “Migrant Labourer Crisis Management Board as a Common Gateway” for the supervision and monitoring of the welfare measures to avoid such crisis in the future; (iii) Also sought establishment of a 24-Hour Multi-Lingual Call Centre as a pivotal point for providing accurate information and effective grievance for redressal to migrant workers in a crisis situation in future.

Claims made by the State: Via the status report, the Centre gave details of steps taken and/or directions issued (having invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005) to prevent spread of Covid-19 in India, and detailed out steps taken by the Central and State Governments, more specifically relating to migrant workers and other similarly placed low income poor people whose daily livelihood was affected due to the lockdown:

a) Measures taken for dealing with needs of the lower strata of the society by providing basic amenities like, food, clean drinking water, medicines;

b) Relief package announced by the Central Government (totalling to Rs.1.7 Lakh Crores) called  the “Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana” whereby poor people (including migrant workers) were to be provided with (i) 5 kg food grains (rice and wheat) (ii) 1 kg pulses, and (iv) 1 gas cylinder, all free of cost for the next 3 months;

c) Construction workers (mostly migrant labourers) were to be provided with financial assistance through “Welfare Fund for Building and Other Construction Workers”;

d) Transportation steps taken by various state governments were directed to be brought to a halt and prohibited further movement of inter-district and inter-state migration and directed the states to stay put enroute migrant workers wherever they are, and provide them shelter, food and medical facilities.  

e) Central Government directed respective State Governments to shift migrant workers on the move and about to reach their respective hometowns/ villages to nearest shelter homes and quarantine them for minimum 14 days;

f) As per the information received by the Control Rooms, 21,064 relief camps have been set up by various State Governments/Union Territories where the migrant workers have been shifted, and being provided with basic amenities like food, medicines, drinking water, etc.; that about 6,66,291 people have been provided with shelter, while 22,88,279 number of people have been provided food.

g) As of 11 a.m. on 7 April 2020, no person was seen walking on the roads in an attempt to reach their homes.

h) Exercise powers under Disaster Management Act, 2005, mandatory directions issued to all employers to make payment of wages to their workers at their work places on the due date, without any deduction for the period such establishment is closed due to the declared lockdown; District Magistrate and Senior Superintendent of Police/ Deputy Commissioner of Police of each District given powers to ensure strict compliance;

i) Directions issued to landlords of migrant workers and other poor people living in rented accommodation not compelled them to pay the rent with strict orders to the district administration to take action against violating landlords.

j) Ministry of Home Affairs issued advisory dt.27.03.2020, 28.03.2020 and 29.03.2020 to all States/ Union Territories suggesting various measures to be taken by the state and district administration concerning migrant agricultural labourers, industrial workers and other unorganised sector workers, including the advisory to adopt a humane approach and show compassion while dealing with migrant workers.

k) Advisory issued by Government of India as on 24.03.2020 for authorities to effectively deal with rumour mongering, to prevent unnecessary panic and fear among the migrants.

l) Intend to implement plan to counsel migrant workers to deal with the panic state of mind amongst the migrant workers.

m) Union of India sought directions from the Court – (i) to the State Governments/ Union Territories to implement the orders issued by the Central Government, and (ii) to prevent fake and inaccurate news from circulating, electronic print or social media to avoid panic in the society.

Order passed by Supreme Court:

a) On 31.03.2020: The Court expressed its satisfaction at the steps taken by the Central Government and implementation by State Governments, to curb the spread of Corona Virus (COVID-19) as well as to provide basic amenities like food, drinking water, medicines to the migrants. With regard to reporting of fake news, taking note of Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (provides for punishment to person who circulated false alarm) and Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (prescribes punishment for disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant) the Court indicated that (i) all concerned shall comply with the directions, advisories and orders passed by the Union of India in the interest of public safety, (ii) stressed on the duty of the media to be more vigilant and responsible and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated; (iii) UOI directed to start issuing daily bulletin through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people. The matter was adjourned for 07.04.2020[2].

b) On 07.04.2020: Petitioners sought to amend its prayers in the Petition which was directed to be listed after 2 weeks.

B. Writ Petition with Diary No. 10801/2020 titled “Harsh Mander & Anr. Vs Union of India” (hereinafter referred to as “WP 2”) was filed by social activist, Mr. Harsh Mander and Ms. Anjali Srivastav, an RTI activist, represented by Mr. Prashant Bhushan (Advocate), whereby directions were sought  seeking immediate payment of minimum wages to migrant workers and the self-employed poor suffering due to the nation-wide Corona-virus lockdown. This petition was filed pertaining to the order issued on 29.03.2020, whereby the Ministry of Home Affairs directed all employers to pay wages to the migrant workers, and for their landlords to not evict them. The PIL contested this and claimed that this was an insufficient measure, and the Central and State Authority should ensure the wages to be paid to the migrant workers at the place they were at, during the lockdown. This petition was listed on 03.04.2020 before Justice L.N. Rao and Justice Deepak Gupta.

Timeline of the Petition:

i) 03.04.2020: Bench comprising ofMr.Justice L.Nageswara Rao and Mr.Justice Deepak Gupta directed Union of India to respond to the averments in the Petition.

ii) 07.04.2020: matter listed before a bench comprising of CJI, SA Bobde, Mr.Justice L.Nageswara Rao and Mr.Justice Mohan M.Shantanagoudar; Government of India filed a status report and Court directed Counsel for the Petitioner to consider the averments of the status report and adjourned the Matter for 13.04.2020.

iii) 13.04.2020: the Court heard arguments from both sides based on the Status Report submitted by the State, but the pages showing report on amount of money transferred to people’s accounts via “direct benefit transfer” were missing from the Bench’s copy, so the matter was adjourned to 20.04.2020[3].

Claims Made by the Petitioners: The PIL relying on the Fundamental Right To Life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, claimed that the nationwide lockdown ordered by the Central Government, led to loss of jobs for the migrant workers which resulted in panic driven situation of mass migration of workers from their work place to their hometowns/ villages. Mr.Prashant Bhushan further contented that (i) in view of no work, Migrant workers need money to send back to their families back home; (ii) that more that 4 lakh migrant workers were living in shelter homes which was contrary to the social distancing policy announced by the Centre, (iii) that the food being served at shelter homes was inedible. After perusing and examining the status report filed by the state, Mr.Bhushan (i) raised his concerns about safety of about 15 Lakh migrant labourers over-crowing at shelter homes for food; (ii) expressed his concern over availability of ration at the shelter homes set up for migrant workers; (iii) Referring to steps taken by countries like Germany, Italy and France in providing financial aid to poor people, Mr. Bhushan questioned failure of Indian Government in following suit[4].

Claims Made by the State: The State referring to its status report defended the steps taken by the Centre in meeting the basic needs and amenities being provided to migrant labourers/ workers; (ii) informed the Court of setting up of helpline number for helping the poor workers; (iii) insisted that there was enough ration available for being distributed (iv) that food was being distributed as 5 Kg ration per person and not on the basis of ration card. On the issue of Migrant workers being provided with wages/ some income, the Solicitor General stated that they have done what was priority and took immediate steps first and then referred to a report showing transfer of an amount of money to people’s accounts via “direct benefit transfer” to show that Government was paying some amount of money to people affected.

Order by the Supreme Court

a) On 07.04.2020: During the hearing, the Court opined that they are not an “expert” body in dealing with crisis health management and that policy decisions were the prerogative of the Government and listed the matter for 13.04.2020[5].

b) On 13.04.2020: During the course of arguments, the Court opined that if the Court passes all the directions that are being sought for in the petition, it will amount to Court running the Government[6]. However, due to missing pages pertaining to the amount of money transferred to accounts of poor people, Court asked the State to place on record the missing pages and adjourned the matter to 20.04.2020.

Controversy Surrounding the Cases: As noted by Rashmi Bansal (Petitioner), in the reports submitted by the Centre, there has been no mention of sanitisation or social distancing in the shelters[7]. Further, Al Jazeera reported migrant workers in UP being doused in disinfectants used for sanitisations of buses[8]. Further, even the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern over the migrant worker’s issues[9].

Author: Suvangana Agarwal, Litigation Associate, at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys.  In case of any queries please contact/write back to us at suvangana@khuranaandkhurana.com.

References:

[1] Chaudhary, Nilashish. “Plea In SC For Rehabilitation Measures For Migrant Workers After Lockdown.” Live Law, April 6, 2020. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/plea-in-sc-for-rehabilitation-measures-for-migrant-workers-after-lockdown-154866?infinitescroll=1.

[2] Alakh Alok Srivastava v Union of India Writ Petition No. 468/2020

[3] Talwar, Sanya. “Hearing Of Urgent Matters In Supreme Court Via Video Conferencing – [LIVE-UPDATES].” Live Law. Live Law, April 13, 2020. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/hearing-of-urgent-matters-in-supreme-court-via-video-conferencing–live-updates-155155?infinitescroll=1.

[4] ibid

[5] Press Trust of India. “Coronavirus: SC Says Not an Expert Body on Health, Management Issues of Migrant Workers.” India Today. India Today, April 7, 2020. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/coronavirus-sc-says-not-an-expert-body-on-health-management-issues-of-migrant-workers-1664272-2020-04-07.

[6] Talwar, Sanya. “Hearing Of Urgent Matters In Supreme Court Via Video Conferencing – [LIVE-UPDATES].” Live Law. Live Law, April 13, 2020. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/hearing-of-urgent-matters-in-supreme-court-via-video-conferencing–live-updates-155155?infinitescroll=1.

[7] Bindra, Japnam, and Neetu Chandra Sharma. “Govt Tells SC One-Third of Migrant Workers Could Be Infected with the Virus.” Livemint. Livemint, March 31, 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid-19-govt-tells-sc-one-third-of-migrant-workers-could-be-infected-11585643185390.html.

[8] “Indian Migrant Workers Sprayed with Disinfectant Chemical.” India | Al Jazeera. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/indian-migrant-workers-sprayed-disinfectant-chemical-200406104936658.html.

[9] “India: Migrant Workers’ Plight Prompts UN Call for ‘Domestic Solidarity’ in Coronavirus Battle | UN News.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1060922.

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