No justice for migrants, judicial apathy to blame?

Some of the recent observations and comments on the plight of migrants made by various courts come across as harsh

Image: PTI

Recently, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and SK Kaul said it cannot stop migrants from walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes. The bench said this while dismissing an application seeking urgent directions to all District Magistrates to identify the walking labourers and to ensure that they reach their homes, free of cost and in a dignified manner. While it is true, no one can actually stop distressed people from wanting to go back home, the manner in which the court upbraided the petitioner’s lawyers, appears to be of concern.

The bench said, “Every advocate reads something suddenly and then you want us to decide issued under Article 32 of the Constitution of India based on your knowledge of newspapers? Will you go and implement government directives? We will give you a special pass and you go and check.” This outburst appears to be a little uncalled for given the completely valid and plausible prayers. It is the job of the lawyer to put the issue before the court and not to implement government’s policies. While the Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta said that the migrants need to “have patience… and wait for their turn” the apex court’s reprimand of the petitioner’s lawyers, appeared to mirror the regime’s apathy towards the migrant workers. 

Migrants denied justice?

The migrant crisis is one which could have been completely avoided, had the central and state governments worked in tandem with each other at the right time, with help from law enforcement agencies and with a proper nudge from the judiciary. Of course, it is the job of the legislature to make the decisions. But unless the same are implemented and unless the judiciary keeps a constant check on these implementations, the legislature and executive are less likely to pull up their socks. The government cannot be given a pat on the back for making their best effort, if the problem remains unsolved and the crisis gets worse. This is what the judiciary’s stance should have been. But, on the last occasion, the Supreme Court refused to interfere in the workings of the government saying, “everyone is trying to do their best in these unusual circumstances”. This unshaken faith in governance and zero interference in implementation by the highest level of judiciary has left the migrants and the poor in a lurch with nobody to turn to.

On April 8, The Telegraph had reported on this blatant neglect and disregard shown by the top court towards the plight of migrants which was brought forth in a petition filed by civil liberties activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj seeking payment of wages to migrant labourers and daily wage earners. The SC bench, led by CJI SA Bobade, during a brief hearing had said, “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”, to which Prashant Bhushan had replied, “They don’t just need food in the shelter homes…. We need to give them money to send to their families back home. They (family members) are not in shelter homes.”

Bhushan had pleaded back then that they should be allowed to travel back home since they are holed up in crowded shelters and 40% migrants, still in their homes have no money for food. To this, CJI Bobade said, “We cannot say at this stage that they are not getting the food.”

The bench had instead questioned the petitioners’ claims and final said, “We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We are not experts in health or management.”

High Courts and NHRC – the ray of hope

While showing disregard towards migrants issues has been the top court’s attitude, other courts and quasi-judicial bodies are however, carving a path to justice. The Madras high Court on May 16, has asked for an ‘Action Taken Report’ from the Centre and states on migrant relief. Further, on what can be seen as a snub to Supreme Court’s decision, the Andhra Pradesh High Court took cognizance of the migrant crisis and said, “if the court doesn’t react, it would be failing in its role”, it also issued quite a few directions which includes transporting migrants in patrol cars to shelter homes, arrange for sanitary pad dispensing machines for women, make water and food available at outposts on the highways and main roads and so on. Clearly the high courts have taken a higher road than the Supreme Court and are paving the way in justice delivery.

Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognizance of the migrants’ plight after seeing a picture of a mother pulling the suitcase with an exhausted child sleeping on it, which is being widely circulated. The NHRC even served notices to the governments of UP and Punjab since the woman was travelling from Punjab to UP, covering a distance of 800 kms. The Commission in its statement held, “Had the local authorities been vigilant, some relief could immediately be provided to the aggrieved family and others facing the similar hardships.” It also observed that “sufferings of the people, particularly the migrant labourers, whose journey long, is not coming to a halt.”

The NHRC also rose to the occasion when 16 migrants were mowed down by a goods train in Aurangabad and had issued notice to Maharashtra government seeking a detailed report by June. The Commission noted that prima facie it is an accident but the reality is that the migrants “lost their lives due to apparent negligence by the district administration. Had some arrangements been made for their shelter or halt during their tiring journey, the painful tragedy could be averted.”

Last week as well when it was reported in the news that a pregnant woman walking on foot from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh had to deliver on the way and then again continue walking within 2 hours, the NHRC took cognizance. It noted that this amounts to violation of her human rights and “Rights to life and dignity of the poor woman have been grossly violated. It is also indignity to the motherhood.” It sought a report from both state governments including the health status of the woman and her child and also if any relief and rehabilitation has been provided by the state authorities to the aggrieved family.


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