In May 2020, Karnataka High Court questioned the decision of the state government to not pay for the train tickets of migrants returning to their home states. The court also scrutinized the constitutionality of the government order, when clear guidelines for reimbursement from the destination states are laid down by the Centre. Summoning the chief secretary and labour secretary, it asked why the government is not following the rules related to the travel of migrant workers.
Post the hearing, the Karnataka government announced that it will bear the cost of migrants’ tickets who are returning with Shramik trains, until 31 May. The decision has been extended on a day-to-day basis since.
In May itself, the Supreme Court of India declined to hear a PIL on the issue of free travel for migrant workers. “It was for the state/railways to take necessary steps” the court noted.
In an unfortunate incident on 8 May, 16 migrants were killed in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, when a train ran over them. They were making a journey to their homes on foot and slept on the tracks to rest, unaware that the trains had begun plying.
During the hearing of a PIL, the petitioner, Alakh Alok Srivastava, raised this issue and the SC bench replied, “How can anybody stop this when they sleep on railway tracks?” Further, it mocked the petitioner by saying, “Will you go and implement the government directives? We will give you a special pass.”
Incidentally, the High Courts are working in stark contrast. On 15 May, the Madras High Court questioned the government on the steps taken to ferry migrants and demanded data on stranded workers. On the same day, a bench of Andhra Pradesh High Court directed the government to provide proper food and medical assistance to migrants.
“If at this stage, this court does not react and pass these orders, this court would be failing in its role of a protector and alleviator of suffering,” the AP bench said. It went as far as directing authorities to ensure sanitary pad dispensing machines for walking migrants.
The SC, on 26 May, finally took suo motu cognizance of “problems and miseries” of migrant workers and “inadequacies and certain lapses” in the efforts of governments. It said the migrants returning home should not be charged and proper food must be ensured. They also provided directions to make the process of registration for transportation effective and quicker.
On Tuesday, the same SC bench ordered states and union territories to send the remaining migrants to home in the next 15 days. The efficacy in the implementation of the directions remains to be seen. Various reports revealed that some migrants waited for almost 10–12 days for their turn to come after registering with railways, some waited even longer and some eventually gave up and started walking home.
Interestingly, during the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta made a comment that “some High Courts were running a parallel government”. His comments were clearly pointed towards orders by various High Courts that were critical of the government and the steps taken to fight Covid-19. Among them, observation of a Gujarat HC bench stands out. The High Court called the conditions in the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital “as good as a dungeon”. The bench was subsequently reshuffled.
Courts of India are not just looked upon for passing judgments on criminals. The power to hold authorities accountable is imperative to its functioning. It is expected of courts to provide checks over the administration, and in cases where lapses are found, it must take the role of a strict enforcer. Especially during a pandemic when the lives of people are at stake.
These are times when the people’s ‘right to life’ is hanging by a thin rope, and responsibilities are on governments, executives, courts and people themselves to push the country through these difficult days. In such a situation, the SC cannot be seen slacking.