Can’t make migrants pay for travel: Supreme Court

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Published: May 29, 2020 4:00 AM

Even as the Centre claimed that it is taking “unprecedented steps” to meet the challenges during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Supreme Court on Thursday asked it to ensure free travel to stranded migrant labourers to their home states.

The transportation of migrant labourers and providing them food has become a matter of concern since the Centre started running special trains from May 1.The transportation of migrant labourers and providing them food has become a matter of concern since the Centre started running special trains from May 1.

Even as the Centre claimed that it is taking “unprecedented steps” to meet the challenges during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Supreme Court on Thursday asked it to ensure free travel to stranded migrant labourers to their home states.

The transportation of migrant labourers and providing them food has become a matter of concern since the Centre started running special trains from May 1.

A Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan, which took suo motu cognisance of the migrant crisis on Thursday, directed the state governments not to collect fare for travel either by train or bus from migrant workers heading home. The cost of their travel will have to be shared between the originating and receiving states.

It said that the originating state shall provide meals and water at the station and during the journey, the Railways would provide the same to the migrant workers. It said that food and water be also provided to them for travel in buses.

The point of food distribution must be publicised and notified to the migrants for the period they are waiting for their turn to board a train or a bus, the SC order said.

Migrant workers found walking on the roads should immediately be taken to shelters and provided food and other necessary facilities, it directed.

The states should set up help desks to disseminate information about arrangements made for migrant workers, it stated.

The bench also directed that states shall oversee the registration of migrant workers and ensure that they are made to board the train or bus at the earliest. It noted that even after registration for travel, the migrants have to wait for a long time for their turns to come.

Directing all states and the Centre to provide relief immediately to the stranded migrants, the top court said they should file their affidavits on the action taken so far including number of migrant workers, plan for transportation, mechanism for registration and the relief provided to them. The bench posted the matter for further hearing on June 5.

“Although there is no doubt that concerned state governments and UTs are taking steps, there are several lapses in the process of registration, transportation, providing food and shelter to the migrants.” the apex court said.

When the Bench asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta about the confusion over payment of travel fare of stranded migrant workers, he said that some originating states pay, some receiving states are paying and some states are reimbursing.

Giving details about the numbers of trains being run, migrants transported and meals provided – the SG said that a decision was taken that rail fare will be paid by originating state or receiving state but the migrant workers will not be burdened with it.

Mehta further said that food and drinking water is being taken care of by the Railways, but the first meal is provided by the originating state government. “Indian Railways has given 84 lakh meals… For over 80% migrants, the state of destination is either UP or Bihar,” he contended, adding that the workers are screened again once they reach the destination state. “Depending upon the health protocol, in some states they are required to be quarantined before they reach their homes. The state government provides for buses to take them to their respective villages,” Mehta said, adding that the government would not stop its efforts or the train service “till even a single migrant remains”.

The top court asked the government to take “some concrete steps” to help the stranded migrants. “How much time do you need to shift the migrants…? What will be monitoring mechanism to ensure food and basic necessities are taken care of… It’s not that the government is not doing anything, but looking at the number of stranded migrants, some concrete steps needed,”

“The first problem is of transport. They are waiting for weeks even after registration. We accept that it’s not possible to transport everyone at the same time. But food and shelter must be given till they can get transport,” the Bench observed.

The Centre told the apex court that 91 lakh migrants have been transported to their states so far since the special train service was started. As many as 3,700 special trains for transporting migrants have operated between May 1-27,” he said, adding five kg grain and one kg pulse is being provided to every migrant irrespective of whether or not they are in such camps.

The SG told the judges not to allow “prophets of doom” to make it a “platform for political speeches… State governments and ministers are working overnight. None of these people acknowledge that… These armchair intellectuals do not recognise the nation’s effort. Those want to be heard, let them file affidavits on what their contribution is to migrants,” he said, adding “some isolated incidents have taken place but these are being shown repeatedly.”

The top court had on May 26 taken suo motu cognizance of the miseries of migrant workers and said there have been “inadequacies and certain lapses” by both the Centre and the states.

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