From Fake News to Counselling: SC Order in Migrant Workers Case

The judges told the Centre to take measures to tackle fake news about COVID-19, as this could create panic.

Updated
India
4 min read
The Supreme Court of India.
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The Supreme Court on Tuesday, 31 March, said it was “satisfied with the steps taken by the Union of India for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus at this stage” but asked the government to start putting out a daily bulletin on developments to clear people’s doubts.

In a wide-ranging order, a bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde noted its concerns for the welfare of migrant labourers during the coronavirus lockdown, the danger of panic caused by fake news, and that it expected everyone to comply with directives, advisories and orders of the Centre in the interest of public safety.

The apex court’s order came after a hearing on petitions by advocates Alakh Alok Srivastava and Rashmi Bansal – via video conferencing – which had asked for directions to the central government to address the problems of migrant workers across the country as a result of the 21-day lockdown.

The Centre submitted a status report to the judges on Tuesday detailing all the measures that had been taken to alleviate the problems of migrant workers, daily-wage workers and the homeless during the crisis, as well as its claims that fake news in the media caused lakhs of migrants to risk travelling on the roads.

SC Asks Centre to Take Measures to Tackle Fake News

During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta explained all the steps taken by the Centre to tackle the pandemic, and suggested that there was no need for directions from the court as measures were being taken by the Centre and through directions to state governments to ensure there was no hardship.

During the hearing, he informed the court that according to the information provided to the Centre, over 6.66 lakh people (including migrant workers) have been housed in temporary accommodation already, and that migrant workers are no longer on the road.

The judges specifically asked for confirmation that there was no more migration taking place, with the Centre assuring them that directions had been issued to state governments to ensure this was complied with.

He also informed the bench of CJI Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao that 22.88 lakh people are being provided food.

Noting these submissions and all the advisories put out by the Centre and the National Disaster Management Authority, the judges said they were satisfied with the Centre’s response. They also observed that the directions from the Centre and State Governments/Union Territories to provide all basic amenities like food, drinking water and medicines to the migrants were being complied with by local authorities.

However, while this meant that they did not see fit to grant the petitioners’ requests for directions to the Centre to take measures, they did take note of some of the central government’s claims in the status report about fake news and the coronavirus crisis, which made for a significant part of the court order.

On the basis of the Centre’s claims, the judges have observed in their order that the “migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down would continue for more than three months.”

The bench urged the Centre to set up a portal within 24 hours for dissemination of real-time information on the coronavirus pandemic to counter the panic being spread through fake news, a suggestion that was accepted, and which will mean a daily bulletin by the Government of India to clear people’s doubts.

While the judges did not issue any orders to the media that they cannot publish any coronavirus updates without first getting Centre’s go ahead – something which the government status report had asked for – they did direct the media to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments.” However, though they have said they expect the media to be responsible and make sure unverified reports are not disseminated, the court clarified that it did not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic.

For those who do spread fake news about it, the court noted that this would be a violation of Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act.

The top court also observed that the panic will destroy more lives than the virus, asked the Centre to get trained counsellors and community leaders of all faiths to calm down the migrants, who are in shelter homes across the country. The Solicitor General had already informed the court that this would be done.

Finally, the judges also said to ensure that the migrants are treated in a humane manner, State Governments and Union Territories should try to “engage volunteers along with the police to supervise the welfare activities of the migrants.”

High Courts Can Still Take Up Cases About Plight of Migrants

After advocate Rashmi Bansal informed the court about the incident in Bareilly on Monday where migrant workers waiting to enter the district were sprayed with chemical disinfectant, the Centre told the apex court that the suggestion to sprinkle water and chemicals on migrants to sanitise them does not work scientifically and is not the right way.

The top court, which refused to restrain the High Courts from taking up the issue of migrants, noted that they may be able to monitor the issue more closely.

The apex court asked the Centre to tell the government lawyers to inform the high courts about the orders passed by it.

The bench also orally asked the Centre to look into the letter petitions filed by Kerala MP from Kasaragod constituency Rajmohan Unnithan and one filed by a MP from West Bengal on the issues related to coronavirus.

The matter has now been adjourned to 7 April.

(With inputs from PTI.)

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