The Supreme Court Tuesday said it was not an “expert” body on dealing with health and management issues of migrant workers arising from the 21-day nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic and would rather ask the government to set up helpline for the needy.
A bench comprising Chief Justice S A Bobde and justices S K Kaul and Deepak Gupta, through video conferencing, was hearing the plea filed by two civil rights activists seeking enforcement of fundamental right to life for migrant workers and payment of wages to them as they have been left without work or food following the lockdown.
The bench, which had earlier issued notice to the Centre on the PIL, took note of the response of the government that it was monitoring the situation and has set up helpline number for helping the poor workers.
“We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We are not experts in health or management and will ask the government to create a helpline for complaints,” the bench said while fixing the PIL for further hearing on April 13.
The bench also said it cannot take a “better policy decision” at this stage and moreover, it also does not want to interfere with the policy decisions for next ten-fifteen days.
At the outset, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for activists Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj, said that more than 4 lakh migrant workers were living in shelter homes and this made mockery of distancing which is necessary to fight COVID-19 pandemic.
“If they are kept in shelter homes and then even if one person has Coronavirus, they all get it. They should be allowed to go back to their own homes. Families need money for survival because they are dependent on the wages,” Bhushan said.
He said that more than 40 per cent such workers did not try to migrate and are living in their own homes in the cities and they do not have money to buy food.
The bench said that it has been told that such workers are being provided with meals in shelter homes and asked as to why they needed money for buying food.
They are not all in shelter homes. They do not just need food in the shelter homes and they needed money to send to their families back home, the lawyer said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre said that the government was “on top of the situation” and it was looking into complaints recieved. The call centre has been set up. The Home Ministry and the Minister have been monitoring the helpline, the law officer said.
The bench, during the hearing, said the courts cannot monitor the complaints that the foods in ome shelter homes are not edible
The PIL has sought enforcement of fundamental right to life for migrant workers and payment of wages to them as they have been left without work or food following the 21-day nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic.
The plea said that fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution needs to be enforced for migrant workers who are severely affected by the lockdown ordered by the government on March 24.
The order for which no prior intimation was given, created a panic across the country and led to the instantaneous loss of jobs and wages of millions of migrant workers employed in establishments across India or self-employed as street vendors, rickshaw pullers, domestic house helps, petty job workers, etc. This led to the large-scale exodus of these migrant workers to their home towns, the plea said.
The petition, filed through Bhushan, said that the sudden announcement of lockdown led to migrant workers crowding in large numbers of many thousands at bus terminals, railway stations and inter-state borders to find their way home, potentially exposing them to the virus and escalating the risk of its spread.
Due to the lockdown the workers cannot travel to their place of work and many of these establishments are small businesses that have been forced to shut down and hence employers will not be able to pay these wages. Besides majority of these migrant workers are self-employed.
“The order ignores the harsh realities that workers have to persistently face in cities that is further compounded when a lockdown order deprives them of their job, daily wages and hence means of survival, thus violating their Article 21 rights, the plea said.
The lockdown has precipitated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis especially among the class of migrant workers and it is the central and state governments that have to take adequate measures in accordance with National and State plans drawn out under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, under the guidance of the advisory committees they are mandated to constitute, to deal with this epidemic, it said.
The petition sought direction to the central and state governments to jointly and severally ensure payments of wages/ minimum wages to all the migrant workers within a week, whether employed by other establishments, contractors or self-employed, as they are unable to work and earn wages, during the period of the lockdown.
It also sought direction to them to immediately activate National and State Advisory Committees of experts in the field of disaster management and public health.
Besides, it sought direction to them for preparing national and state disaster management plans for dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic, taking into account all relevant aspects, mitigation measure, their possible costs and consequences as required under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.