About the Author:
Pramod Mallur and Rukmini Patil are law students in KSLU’s Law School.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought havoc across the Globe. As a response, India announced a nationwide lockdown. Innumerable Migrant workers in India were affected due to this Pandemic. The Constitution of India has guaranteed the Right to Life and Dignity to every citizen. However, these inherent human rights appeared to be in non-existence with regard to vulnerable migrant workers. The nationwide lockdown amidst the Covid 19 was like a double-edged sword to the migrant workers.
The sources of livelihood are dried up and the little remaining small amount of financial sources not being enough to withstand the hardships of the pandemic. The Government failed to protect the rights of these workers by not providing basic facilities. The Apex Court is the protector and guardian of rights, however, one could see the non-interference of the Apex Court. The High Courts came forward with a compassionate and systematic approach and uplifted the rights of migrant workers in the worst humanitarian crisis. This article critically analyses the inactions by the Government and the role played by the Judiciary with regard to migrant workers.
In March 2020, the Government of India announced a nationwide lockdown in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The lockdown seemed like a scourge to the poor, especially to the migrant labourers. With the factories and industries being shut, the Migrant workers experienced hardships and paid a huge painful price. Though the government steered the situation with great care, the large vulnerable section of the migrant labourers was left unnoticed on the roads to die out of hunger and poverty. India has around 5.6 Crore inter-state migrant workers who largely hail from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The country witnessed lakhs of migrant workers heading back to their hometown by walking hundreds of miles in blazing heat and dying due to starvation.
The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ensures Social Justice and equality to all the citizens, but it was very unfortunate to see failure on the part of the Government to come forward to protect and support the most vulnerable migrant workers. The Supreme Court is the last resort for the oppressed and the bewildered. It has the power not only to do justice but also has the power to command and direct the Government and its authorities to provide assistance and aid to the vulnerable migrant workers. Even so, one could see the disheartening situation of the migrant workers.
This article predominantly resonates with the Government’s inaction and the judicial underreach in the context of migrant workers.
The Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to Life to every Individual under Article 21. The Right to Life is not just confined to mere survival, but it also ensures the right to livelihood, right to live with dignity and health of the citizens. So, these inherent rights ought to be amplified to the underprivileged like migrant workers.
However, the innate inequalities in India’s socio-economic system have infringed the migrant workers fundamental right to life. For instance, on 25th March 2020, only a four-hour notice was given before the nationwide lockdown which resulted in many migrant workers being stranded in the cities. If the Government had taken into consideration the state of affairs of the migrant workers, then a large majority of them would be back to their hometown ahead of the nationwide lockdown.
The Dignity of migrant labours appeared to be in non-existence as they had to depend on the charity of the privileged class. They had to wait for hours in the queue to get a single meal per day. For instance, a migrant worker in Mumbai told “ We sometimes get food, sometimes we don’t. We have to depend on charity for survival. There is no dignity in living like this. It’s humiliating”.
Entry 81 of List I of Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution, ‘inter-state migration and inter-state quarantine’ falls in the domain of Central Government and it alone is empowered to administer with these matters. But this does not exonerate the States from its obligation as they too are recipients of Labour. In List III of the Seventh Schedule entries like entry 22 cites ‘trade unions, industrial and labour disputes’ and entry 24 cites ‘ welfare of labour’ cast a duty and responsibility on both Central and State Governments to protect the interest of migrant workers.
The Finance Minister announced Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana ( PMGKY) during the pandemic but this had nothing to offer to the migrant workers. No wonder that the Government had announced more than 300 schemes for the relief of migrant workers which encompassed arrangements of buses and special trains, arrangements of temporary shelter, food and other medical facilities to the stranded workers.
However, no proper implementation and execution of the schemes resulted in havoc on the life of migrant workers. For instance, the running of special trains did not justify its purpose as most migrant workers could not manage to get the tickets and few could not afford to pay for the ticket.
As of 4th July 2020 in accordance with Report by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), there were around 971 deaths of migrant workers. The below Table portrays the agonies of the migrant labourers.
|Cause of deaths||No. of Deaths as of 4th July 2020|
|Starvation and financial distress||216|
|Lack of Medical Care||77|
|Road or Train accidents||209|
|Death in Shramik Trains||96|
|Death in quarantine centres||49|
|Lockdown associated crimes||18|
|Alcohol withdrawal related||49|
The sources of livelihood are dried up and the little remaining small amount of financial sources not being enough to withstand the hardships of the pandemic.
Judicial apathy towards migrant workers
The constitution of India has assigned the responsibility of protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens to the supreme court of India. And yes, it has always been a saviour and has never shunned away from resolving the alarming issues. Be it pollution or human rights or religious matters, it has always presented itself. However, it is surprising to see its disinterest and non-interference towards the migrant labourers’ plight when it was meant to look out for their interests.
Mahua Moitra v. Union of India
Mahua Moitra a Lok Sabha MP wrote a letter to the supreme court appealing it to direct the executive agencies to provide food and shelter to these interstate migrant workers. The Supreme court took Suo moto cognizance of this letter but dismissed it sooner for unknown reasons.
Harsh Mander & Anr v. Union of India
“If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?” – this was the question asked by the chief justice of India while hearing the petition filed by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj. The petition sought the court to direct the government agencies to pay wages to these migrant labourers. Prashanth Bhushan appearing on behalf of the petitioners bought to the notice of the court that many labourers still lacked basic amenities to which the court asked them to look into the status report submitted by the government and hence refused to interfere in any of the policy decisions of the Government. Relying upon these status reports the court later disposed of the same.
Alakh Alok Srivatsa v. Union of India
This petition was disposed of by the bench comprising of CJI Bobde and justice Nageswara Rao. The petition strived the court to direct the government to shift the migrant workers who were walking on the roads for hundreds of kilometers to the shelter homes to which the union responded that the mass migration had stopped and the workers had already been shifted to relief camps. Once again relying upon the status report submitted by the government the court disposed of the petition.
The Supreme Court passed an interim order on 20th Mat 2020 directing the migrant workers to travel without paying the cost of the fare. But the order was too late and around 85% of migrant workers had returned to their hometown or are in transit and had already incurred the travelling expenses.
After being heavily criticized for its non-interference in the migrant labourer’s issues the Supreme court took Suo moto cognizance of the reports shown by the media and issued several interim directions. After 11 months of the ongoing case, the court on June 5th observed that all the states must implement a “one nation one ration card” scheme which would allow the labourers to avail the benefits in any part of the country.
In Re Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers
The Supreme Court directed the Central Government, State governments of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to provide Dry Ration to migrant workers in the National Capital Region irrespective of they possessing Ration card or not. Further, the Supreme Court directed these Governments to provide adequate transport facilities who want to return to their hometown. Likewise, to open community kitchens at well-publicised places for stranded migrant workers and their families to get at least two days a meal.
In contrast to the Supreme Court, the High Courts have come forward with the compassionate and sympathetic approach towards the migrant workers.
Mohammed Arif Jameel v. Union of India 
There was an ongoing dispute in Karnataka regarding the fare of the special trains arranged by the State Government for the migrant workers. Initially, the State Government had refused to bear the fare costs. The High Court of Karnataka ordered the State Government to decide on the crisis and stating “ Prima facie, it appears to us that considering the constitutional rights of the migrant workers, no one should be deprived of an opportunity to go back to his state only for the reason that he cannot pay for the transport. The reason is that inability to pay is due to loss of livelihood”. Subsequently, the State Government ordered that it will bear the cost of the fare.
AP Suryaprakasam v. Superintendent of Police
The Madras High Court expressed its agony while hearing the Habeas Corpus petition of 400 migrant workers of Tamil Nadu who were detained in Maharashtra. The Madras High court was dissatisfied with the lack of coordination between the State and Central Government which has resulted in havoc on the life of migrant workers. The Court observed that it is pity that migrant workers are walking in the scorching sun to reach their houses and government authorities had a duty to extend their human service to these workers. The Court further ordered the State Government to provide Free Ration to migrant workers regardless of them having a ration card or not.
Suo Motu v. the State of Gujarat
The High Court of Gujarat filed a Sou Motu petition when they saw several news channels telecasting the extreme pain being faced by the migrant workers in the State of Gujarat. The High Court said that it will not intervene in the functioning of the Government, but directed the State Government to take effective measures like arranging special trains, providing free food, medical facilities and other essential facilities to the migrant workers.
Abhijeet Kumar Pandey v. Union of India 
The Delhi High Court directed the State Government to provide free medicines and medical facilities to migrant workers. The division bench remarked, “ In the view of scale and magnitude of Covid-19 pandemic, a structured response by the administration is required so that the voiceless and the marginalized sections of the society can be given proper and adequate relief ”.
Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. State of Madhya Pradesh
Social Organisation Bandhua Mukti Morcha filed a petition concerning the difficulties of migrant workers who have hailed backed to Madhya Pradesh due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Madhya Pradesh High Court directed the State Government to draw out a definite plan to rehabilitate the migrant workers so that they can earn their livelihood in their parent State.
Jana Samparka Samithy v. State of Kerala
The Kerala High Court observed that the State Government must ensure the well being, life and liberty of the migrant workers. The Court further ordered that the State should ensure that employers provide shelter, a clean environment and healthy living along with basic facilities.
Challenges and Opportunities: Post-Covid 19
The biggest challenge regarding migrant workers post covid 19 is to drive them back to the cities for their employment. Facing the hardship during Covid 19, most of the migrant workers have decided to stay back at their native. They have told that cities have disowned them and treated them in a substandard inferior way.
The contemporary scenario demands a new Ministry for Migrant affairs which deal with the affairs of migrant workers. The foundational initiative towards transformative social protection is to create a database of migrant workers. The Ministry will have complete data about all the Migrant workers which include the place of origin, the place and the term of employment. The Data can be used for town planning, city planning and also used to produce employment apart from guaranteeing the traceability of migrant workers. Likewise, it will help in better coordination with all the states regarding migrant workers.
The Central Government can make a new policy of issuing Unique Identity Numbers of all Indian labourers who wish to travel to other State for work. The Data base of this Unique Identity Number will keep a track of all the migrant workers travelling and entering into different states and the card will help the migrant workers to receive the benefits which are offered by the Central and State Governments.
The Indian Government can attempt to eliminate the bifurcation of the formal and informal sectors in Industries. Usually, the workers in the informal sector are exploited. Therefore, this elimination will lead to a unitary labour market in India. Also, the role of middlemen or contractors who often supply labour to industries should be minimised as they being the major reason for the exploitation of workers.
As India set its feet into the stringent lockdown along with the rest of the world to grapple with the Covid-19 Pandemic, the country has faced numerous challenges. One that caught the attention of everyone was the large scale migration of inter-state migrant workers. Neither employment nor money nor food with them, they had to walk miles of kilometres to reach their hometown at the cost of risking their own lives.
The Government which was supposed to assume responsibility for the circumstances turned a blind eye at the peak hour. It claimed to have announced more than 300 schemes, nevertheless, the misfortunes, torment or the sufferings never seemed to have come to an end. One can point out the disregard displayed by the Government. The Government doesn’t seem to care since as they don’t have accurate data of the migrant workers even after continuing to battle with the pandemic for a year and a half.
The saddest thing about this State of affairs is the passivity exhibited by the Judiciary which is the most important institution of the country. It was unfortunate to see the Apex Court being so inattentive to the ongoing worst humanitarian crisis in the initial few months. It was evident through its judgement that the Supreme Court has failed to acknowledge the violation of Fundamental Rights of this vulnerable part of the society.
The role played by the High Courts in the issues of migrant workers is of paramount significance. Nonetheless, the decision of the High Courts is impaired since they cannot synchronize with the other State Governments. On that account, it is intelligible that the Supreme Court is the most competent authority to issue orders to executive agencies to look after these situations. Finally, amongst all this chaos, there was a ray of hope when the Apex Court took up the Suo moto cognizance of the matter and tried to validate the rights of these impoverished individuals.
This Pandemic has dismantled the lives of the migrant workers to such an extent that it will take them years together to fabricate the lost parts. This will have great impact on their mental and physical conditions that will reduce the productivity rate. The same is the condition of our country at present , the economy looks to have been wretched and in coming days it is sure to face unemployment as a major complication.
In present scenario, the environment demands a legit enactment of law that will ensure food, shelter and dignity to the migrant workers. Likewise , it is duty of the Government to make labour intensive sectors as priority and create adequate jobs.
 Olga Telis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1986 AIR 180
 Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi , 1981 AIR 746
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