What would you say if you want to say good things about our government when our country is passing through a turbulent time? Would you say the lockdown was timely to stop the spread of the coronavirus?
Probably it will be difficult to say so as the first case of the infection was detected much earlier. Would you say that the lockdown was declared with necessary preparedness? How can you say that when it was declared in four hours notice?
Forget about the millions of migrant workers, do we have any estimate of people who travel normally long distance in a couple of hours by bus, train and air in a given day? I am not aware of any such estimate. But you and I can at least imagine it, considering the size and spread of our country.
So how many people were stranded in where they were at the time of the declaration of the lockdown? How were they inconvenienced and for how long? Is it not a man made human tragedy? We could have possibly avoided it with little more thoughtful planning.
Then comes the question of the migrant workers. What have we witnessed in the plight of the migrant workers? When a section of the foreign media and a few people in our country compared the plight of the migrant workers to the plight of the refugees after the partition of India at the time of independence, we thought, it was an unfair comparison and an act of exaggeration. But the unfolding of events later proved us wrong.
We knew that ours was a class divided society. But we didn’t know that the divide was so sharp and deep. It was truly shocking that a mighty country like India could behave in this manner and treat its own people like this! Who are the migrant workers? Aren’t they the people who have built up the minaret of our modern development!
The saddest thing is the Supreme Court of India also refused to intervene on a petition that wanted the government to identify the stranded migrant workers, take care of their needs and provide free transport to them.
Even a top court bench infamously remarked: “How can we stop them (migrants) from walking.” Oh what an ignominy! But surprisingly a number of High Courts in the country passed scathing orders saying that the state cannot wash their hands over the issue of the migrant workers and must take care of them.
The apex court was bathing in shame. Its role was widely critiqued in India and abroad. As the situation worsened, a group 21 eminent advocates of the apex court addressed a letter to the Chief Justice of India and other judges of the Supreme Court asking them to intervene and redress the situation.
No doubt, this letter will be remembered by the future jurists and lawyers for its historic significance. What the letter mentioned in its concluding paragraph is of great value:
“We address this letter because we believe that the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s failure to protect the rights of the hapless millions of migrant workers in March and its failure to scrutinize carefully the executives actions, which resulted in them being compelling to stay in cramped unhygienic accommodation without employment and wages and often without proper food and with a much higher risk of Covid infection that severely and excessively impaired the fundamental rights of the poorest sections of our citizens.
“This situation was compounded by the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s failure to intervene in mid-May when millions of migrant workers had commenced travelling home on foot, or by trucks.”
This was nothing but a forceful argumentation in the form of a letter, reminding the SC of its constitutional responsibilities. Fortunately this time the ice melted, good sense prevailed and the Supreme Court intervened. It took sou mouto cognizance of the issue. On Thursday afternoon the bench passed an interim order in favour of the migrant workers where it categorically stated the following:
*As and when the state governments put in a request for trains, railways has to provide them. No fare for train or bus shall be charged from migrant workers. The fare will be shared by the states.
*Migrant workers who are stranded, shall be provided food by the concerned state at places which shall be publicized and notified.
*During the train journey, the originating states will provide meals and water. The railways will provide meals and water. Food and water will also be provided in buses.
*The state shall oversee the registration of migrant workers and ensure that after registration, they board the train or bus at an early date. Complete information should be provided to all concerned.
*Those migrant workers found walking on the roads, should be immediately taken to shelters and provided food and all facilities.
Is it not a great relief to the hapless migrant workers? The question is why the Central government didn’t do anything when the migrant workers first took to the streets? Then, why the SC didn’t intervene in it?
First, the executives failed in its duty of governance. Then the apex judiciary abdicated its constitutional responsibility. The bench failed the migrants. But the bar rose to the occasion and played a historic role in pleading and seeking justice for the hapless migrant workers and the bench buckled under pressure