SC asks Centre's stand on migrants' inter-state travel

Coronavirus lockdown: Supreme Court asks Centre's stand on allowing inter-state travel of migrants 

Supreme Court of India. (Credit: PTI Photo)

The Supreme Court, on Monday, asked the Centre to tell within a week if there is any proposal to allow inter-state movement of migrant workers who are stranded in several states due to the countrywide lockdown imposed since March 25 to contain COVID-19.

A bench of Justices N V Ramana, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and B R Gavai asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to respond to a PIL filed by activist Jagdeep S Chhokar and advocate Gaurav Jain.

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The petitioners, led by advocate Prashant Bhushan, wanted safe travel for such workers to their native places after conducting COVID-19 tests on them.

The bench brushed aside objections to the plea made by Mehta.

The court, however, grilled Bhushan asking him why it should hear him if he did not have faith in the Supreme Court. Bhushan had made a tweet recently, apparently expressing his anguish with the institution.

The counsel said he has expressed his personal views in the past, which have also been echoed by retired judges.

On this, the bench said Bhushan has been part of the institution for 30 years. Some orders are favourable and some are not, but the comments made by him in the past are indicative that he has no faith in the judiciary, the bench said.

Solicitor General Mehta also said every time Bhushan lost in court, he ran to the SC lawns (where media is always present) and called it a black day. He cannot run the government as a PIL petitioner.

During the hearing, though Mehta insisted that the matter should be posted for hearing after two weeks, the court decided to examine it after a week.

The petitioners wanted migrant workers across the country to be allowed to return to their hometowns and villages after conducting the necessary Covid-19 test. It claimed the migrant workers were amongst the worst-affected category of people due to the lockdown.

Hundreds of such workers had come out on the roads in Delhi, Mumbai and Surat and other parts of the country, feeling desperate after the announcement of a countrywide lockdown, initially for three weeks from March 25, and subsequently extended till May 3.

Background

The PIL filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan claimed thousands of migrant workers, who didn't join the mass exodus in the initial national 21-day lockdown, were being harassed by local residents and being beaten up at some places leading to "humiliation and inexplicable sufferings".

Chhokar, former director-in charge IIM-Ahmedabad and founder of 'Association of Democratic Reforms', and Jain, in their joint plea, contended that the fundamental right of the migrant workers enshrined under Article 19(1)(d) (right to move freely throughout the territory of lndia) and Article 19(1)(e) of the Constitution (right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of lndia) cannot be suspended for an indefinite period. Forcing these workers to stay away from their families and living in unpredictable and arduous conditions were unreasonable restrictions upon their rights, they said.

They also contended the extension of lockdown was casting a disproportionate burden on migrant workers stranded in cities of their migration as compared to those living with their own families at their own residences. This was violative of the right to equality under Article 14 and right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Referring to a status report filed by the Centre in a separate case, the petitioners said only 25 lakh migrant workers were being taken care of while their actual number ranged from four to 12 crore.

The petition drawn by advocates Neha Rathi and Jatin Bharadwaj gave examples of Delhi's Anand Vihar Bus Terminal, Mumbai's Bandra and Surat incidents where large numbers of workers came out on roads for salaries and the permission to go back to their respective native places.

"In view of the extension of the national lockdown and also the possibility of its further extension, similar incidences are very likely to unfold across the country. Such skirmishes will result in problems of public order, over and above the primary and challenging task of taking care of the public health," their plea said.