The Supreme Court did not disappoint. The central government got a pat on its back, and the people platitudes. One does not know what took some public spirited persons to move to the court on behalf of the excluded working people seeking relief from them. The PIL ended up making the grip of the government even more firmer on people’s minds.
After having pursued the petition and the response of the Centre through its Solicitor General and the Status Report, the court was satisfied with the measures taken by the central government for preventing the spread of coronavirus at this stage.
It did remember, however, that it was not to deliberate on this issue. The prayer was for the welfare of unfortunate migrant labour. The labouring, working masses were struggling to reach where they belong.
What Triggered Mass Exodus of Migrant Workers?
It was not strange that the Supreme Court persuaded itself to believe that the exodus of the labouring masses was triggered by fake news that the lockdown was to continue for the next three to four months. The Status Report of the government didn’t suggest it. Nothing was placed on record before the court to substantiate the claim made by the Solicitor General. Nor, to the best of our knowledge, public knowledge has any independent source made this claim.
If the learned and compassionate justices had the time and inclination, they could have gone through the reports in different newspapers and on various websites, that the primary reason for leaving their working places was loss of livelihood and no assurance that they would be looked after.
Most of them don’t have steady jobs with regular salaries. Their employers shut their shops and turned them out.
Many were asked by their landlords to vacate their houses as they knew that they would not be able to pay rent.
Fear of Starvation & Lack of Assurance From Govt Drove Migrants Home
One does not want to believe that the honourable lordships have not been watching TV or reading reports to understand the reason behind the exodus of the working people. This is only one of the samples of responses from those desperate to leave to appreciate their anxiety:
“Our first concern is food, not the virus,” said Suresh Kumar, 60, a cycle rickshaw rider in New Delhi.
It was not fake news. It was the reality of the fear of starvation that forced these people to take the risk of walking back to their villages and towns.
Or, it was as experts write, the distrust of the State.
“....at the heart, their walking conveys a deep distrust of the state, especially when it promises assistance. They act as if the offer is a diversionary tactic to make them relent by a wily state, which will go back to being its uncaring self, once they do,” said one newspaper report.
What the Supreme Court Chose to See
The Supreme Court did not want to lose focus. So, it did not try to look at anything other than the Status Report filed by the central government, that there were a sufficient number of relief centres and sufficient arrangement for food, drinking water and hygiene for these who had been forced out of their temporary habitats.
Migratory labour exists in states. It would not have taken much effort to ask for reports from the state governments.
The centres are not set up by the central government; India, even in an emergency like this, continues to be a federal state. The court could have listened to a chief minister who complains that there was no consultation with the state governments who would be left with the job of looking after the people, arranging resources for them.
Before accepting the word of the central government, that its relief package takes care of all the needs, it could have looked at the break-up of the offer.
It did not even recognise the existence of migratory labour. It did not think about those who might not have bank accounts, who do not fit in any of the slots of the grand relief package – and yet, they exist.
SC Felt it Important to Listen to the Plea of the Solicitor General
The court was expected to do this much. It did not feel the need for it. It could have sent teams from high courts to inspect the centres and report. It would not taken more than two hours.
It did something else. That became the most effective part of its order. It felt it important to listen to the plea of the Solicitor General that it was in fact ‘fake news’ which caused this mayhem.
It took special note of it and asked the media to give the “official version” when reporting, writing about the issues related to coronavirus.
We should be grateful to the court that it didn’t agree with the idea of pre-censorship by the state of reports or analyses on the issues related to coronavirus, but the government would not fail to find ways to persecute and prosecute those who raise uncomfortable questions in the name of national good.
The Media Forced Govt to Take Note of Crisis
If the media chooses to stick to only the official version, it would mislead the people. Is it not the duty of the media to keep examining the claims of the government and do its own job?
The lordships could have looked at how the media in other countries function in such a crisis. They have not reduced themselves to being the official mouthpiece of their governments. They speak on behalf of the people, they are holding their governments accountable, they are keeping them on their toes.
In fact, it was the media which forced the government to take note of this crisis.
Had it not been the relentless reporting, even the court would not have felt the need to sit to discuss it. Partha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik rightly asked, “Indeed, if the imagery of Indians walking across the country were not so gripping globally, would we be as worried?”
They also want to know, “If there is no community transmission (perhaps some cluster transmission) as the government tells us, a group of walking migrants are not as high a risk as is being made out to be.”
Who Decides What ‘Fake News’ Is?
Experts are asking questions, and people do need to know their views even if they differ from the official stand. If they say that the left hand of the central government does not seem to know what it’s right hand is doing, should media report it or not? Would it disturb national solidarity, would it weaken the commander?
Before being generous with the media by allowing discussion on it, the court could have pulled up the National Broadcasting Authority which did not want these disturbing images to be aired ?
Who would decide what fake news is? Obviously the government would have the last word in the scheme of things, as it emerges from the order of the Supreme Court.
It would not be difficult for the central government or governments to use the question of the Court – “You told us about fake news and how you will control it. Do you have any powers under any Act by which you can punish people for spreading fake news? Why don't you take action against people if you are so concerned about fake news?” – to clamp down on the news it deems fake.
What does one say about the concern of the court for the mental health of these displaced masses? It noted that the government is “taking care of it” by ensuring counselling by preachers of all religions in these relief centres. Do we need to say it is not these poor folks who require counselling; they live somewhere else but we cannot name them?
(The writer teaches at Delhi University. He tweets @Apoorvanand_. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)