Don’t Want to Meddle With Govt’s Decisions on Migrant Workers: SC

Court was scheduled to hear several petitions relating to migrant workers, from wage payments to relief measures.

3 min read
Migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh walk along the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, following the coronavirus lockdown, in Palghar, Monday, 30 March.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday, 7 April, declined to pass any further orders for relief measures for migrant workers, observing that it could not interfere with government efforts at this point of time.

Several petitions were scheduled to be heard by the apex court dealing with different issues relating to migrant workers, from Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj’s petition on payment of wages, to Mahua Moitra’s on the need for more relief measures, to Aruna Roy’s petition on payment of MNREGA wages.

Here’s how the court dealt with these petitions during the day.

Harsh Mander vs Union of India

Advocate Prashant Bhushan had filed a PIL in the apex court on behalf of social activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj on 1 April, which sought immediate payment of wages to all categories of migrant workers by the government.

The Centre had ordered on 29 March that all employers of migrant workers should pay their wages during the lockdown at their place of work, with state governments instructed to make arrangements for food and shelter.

Mander and Bhardwaj have argued it is unrealistic to expect small establishments employing migrant workers to pay them their wages at their place of work as migrants may not be able to travel there and many such small businesses have been forced to shut down because of the coronavirus crisis.

As central and state authorities are mandated to keep a record of migrant workers, the central and state governments should be able to pay wages to these migrant workers directly.

The Supreme Court had issued notice on the petition and sought the Centre’s response by Tuesday, 7 April.

When the matter came up for hearing before the bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde, it turned out that the Centre had only filed its response in the morning, and had not yet been seen by Mander and Bhardwaj’s lawyers.

Bhushan informed the court that based on government data, lakhs of migrants are being put up in shelters, which makes a mockery of the measures for social distancing that are required to combat the spread of COVID-19. He reiterated that wages should be paid to the migrant workers by the government, so that they can feed themselves and send money home to their families.

CJI Bobde asked why this was necessary if meals were being provided by the state governments. Bhushan replied that meals are being given in the temporary shelters, but many migrants aren't in shelters, and so need the money for food or to send home.

The Chief Justice observed that there wasn’t sufficient information available at this stage to say that migrants weren’t receiving food. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, informed the court that all complaints are being looked into, and that the government helpline for migrants is being monitored constantly.

The CJI also noted that some of the complaints reportedly raised by migrants about the relief camps and measures being taken could not be monitored by the Supreme Court, such as the food being ‘inedible’.

He said that the judges are not experts in these matters, and so could not take better policy decisions than the government at this point. “We can’t supplant the government’s wisdom with our wisdom,” he explained.

As a result, he said the court did not intend to interfere with the government's efforts for the next 10-15 days. Bhushan responded by saying that if the court doesn’t take up the matter, many people may die of starvation, and requested that money should at least be given to migrants registered with the government to send to their families.

The CJI disagreed, and said Bhushan could not be sure of his assertions without even having a chance to go through the government’s status report, which had been submitted on affidavit by now.

As a result, he listed the matter for Monday, 13 April, by which time the petitioners can go through the report and respond with any new information if required.

(The other petitions are still to be heard later today. This story will be updated with the details of those hearings over the course of the day.)

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