Why Amit Shah & Tushar Mehta ‘Differ’ On Issue Of Migrant Crisis

A former SC judge, Justice Madan Lokur, said that the SC deserved an ‘F Grade’ for its handling of migrant crisis. 

Updated04 Jun 2020, 11:37 AM IST
Opinion
5 min read

Having failed India’s migrant workers, the Modi government is now trying to execute a spin. In a series of TV interviews, Union Home Minister Amit Shah has woven a new narrative around the government’s failure of hastily-crafted orders. In an after-the-event rationalisation, he claims that the initial ban on the movement of migrant workers and government facilitation after 1 May were calibrated, carefully planned moves.

Amit Shah told an interviewer, “We are sensitive to the migrant workers. In the first month of the lockdown, our main concern was that even if the migrant workers face some difficulty, they should be protected from COVID-19, that these people leave gradually. And when they do, all facilities in their home states are in place, the hospitals are in good shape, the quarantine facilities and doctors are ready. So we started their movement from 1 May.”

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta Called Mass Migration of Workers An ‘Unforeseen Development’

Shah’s assertion of an astute plan guiding government policy from the very beginning is completely at odds with the claim of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to the Supreme Court as recently as 31 May – that the mass migration of informal sector workers took the government completely by surprise.

He said it was an “unforeseen development”.

This was the position taken in a Status Report submitted to the Supreme Court signed by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla. The report describes the diverse resources which had to be pooled by the government to provide food for the unexpectedly large numbers of people on the move. The government mobilised “spare capacities of prison kitchen(s), mid-day meal vendors, IRCTC facilities, etc,” besides coordinating with NGOs and religious organisations. These measures show that the government had not anticipated the scale of migration.

Snapshot
  • Amit Shah’s assertion of an astute plan guiding govt policy on migrant crisis is at odds with the claim of SG Tushar Mehta to the SC as recently as 31 May.
  • Mehta claimed that the mass migration of informal sector workers ‘took the government completely by surprise’.
  • Not one of the 11 empowered groups constituted by Centre on 29 March, to deal with COVID, had a direct focus on informal sector workers or migrant workers.
  • The reasons currently given by HM Shah as to why the govt stalled the initial return of migrant workers, are completely different from those his ministry gave to the SC.

Home Ministry’s Status Report Expresses ‘Bewilderment’ At the Reverse Migration

The government’s preparations also raise concerns that it had no clue as to how migrant workers and their employers would react to the lockdown announced on 24 March. The Labour Minister was not even included in the Group of Ministers created to deal with the pandemic. It consisted of only the Ministers of Health, Aviation, Shipping, Home and External Affairs.

Not one of the 11 empowered groups constituted by the Union government on 29 March to deal with the pandemic – nine of them headed by secretaries to the government and two by NITI Aayog officials – has a direct focus on informal sector workers or migrant workers. Just one group, on ‘Economic and Welfare Measures, has the Labour Secretary as a member. Each of these empowered committees was given one week to submit their recommendations.

By the time they were formed, the migrant workers had already taken to the national highways.

Indeed, the Status Report of the Home Ministry on 31 March expresses utter bewilderment at the reverse migration, believing that the migrants were well taken care of through various government welfare schemes. The Report’s bureaucratic wisdom suggests that the behaviour of migrant workers was essentially irrational. After all, it claimed, “Their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working, and the daily needs of their family members were being taken care of in their respective villages.”

How Home Ministry ‘Shifted Blame’ For the Human Catastrophe

The Home Ministry sought to subsequently shift blame for the human catastrophe by accusing ‘fake news’ about the lockdown. If the reference was to the speculation that that the lockdown may exceed 21 days, then they have been proved correct by subsequent events. In several parts of the country, the lockdown has entered the third month.

The reasons currently advanced by the Home Minister for why the government stalled the initial return of migrant workers, are completely different from those his ministry gave to the Supreme Court.

Shah claims this was to give time to their home states for building healthcare capacity for an anticipated growth in infections. The Home Secretary’s report to the Supreme Court, however, explains that the government restricted worker movement – to prevent them from carrying infection to the rural population “which has remained untouched so far”.

The Home Secretary explained: “If migrant workers are permitted to conclude their journey, reach their home village and merge with the rural population, there is a serious and imminent potential of the infection penetrating in (sic) rural India also... This migration therefore is not only dangerous for the migrant workers who have started on foot themselves (sic) but also for rural India for which they have started the journey.”

The Govt & Migrant Crisis: Is ‘Dissimulation’ the ‘New Game’ in Town?

The Status Report also admits policy flip-flops – in first allowing some states to ferry the migrant workers, and then banning their movement. It says that “with a view to initially disperse the gathering of such migrant workers at the State borders, some State government did make arrangements for their travel by bus but eventually a final decision is (sic) taken not to permit further movement of such migrant workers and required (sic) them to stay wherever they have (sic) reached.”

This decision came in the form of a ban (order) from the Ministry of Home Affairs on 29 May on travel, and enforcing strict lockdown measures, and caused further confusion and despair among migrant workers preparing to go home.

Dissimulation clearly is the new game in town. We already have before us the example of the Supreme Court trying to re-package itself as the champion of the migrant workers’ cause. Having dismissed five public interest litigations and applications on the exodus of migrants from the metros, the Supreme Court would have the country believe that it took cognisance of their plight of its own accord (suo motu). Its decision also follows after half a dozen High Courts pulled up state governments for not doing enough for the returning migrants, the majority of whom had already reached their villages.

A former Supreme Court judge, Justice Madan Lokur, has said that the apex court deserved an ‘F Grade’ for its handling of the migrant crisis. Can the Modi government’s score be any better despite Home Minister Amit Shah’s rationalisation of its policy failure?

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 04 Jun 2020, 11:20 AM IST

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