Days after refusing to intervene, Supreme Court finally takes suo motu cognisance of human tragedy of migrant workers


Days after refusing to intervene, the Supreme Court has finally decided to take notice of the plight of migrant workers, who’ve been forced to go through unspeakable misery due to an unplanned lockdown announced by the Indian government. The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah on Tuesday took suo motu cognisance to finally concede that there have indeed been ‘inadequacies and certain lapses’ by the Centre and the states. The top court directed the governments to provide migrant workers transport, food and shelter immediately free of cost.

migrant workers
India’s poor migrant daily wage workers forced to walk thousands of kms to return to their native villages amidst COVID-19 lockdown

The court, according to Livelaw website, said, “We take suo motu cognisance of problems and miseries of migrant labourers who had been stranded in different parts of the country. The newspaper reports and the media reports have been continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable conditions of the migrant labourers walking on-foot and cycles from long distances.”

Millions of stranded workers have been going through incredible hardships while making desperate attempts to return to their native places by walking hundreds of kilometers in the absence of the availability of public transport due to the nationwide lockdown. Dozens of migrants workers have had to lose their lives due to exhaustion, starvation and road and train accidents in recent weeks.

On 15 May, the top court had stunned everyone by refusing to intervene in the unfolding human tragedy saying that it was impossible for the courts to monitor or stop the movement of migrant workers across the country. Many activists and lawyers had criticised the top court for not doing enough in making the executives accountable.

However,  the Supreme Court on Tuesday said, “The adequate transport arrangement, food and shelters are immediately to be provided by the Centre and State Governments free of costs.”

The Supreme Court Bench observed that ‘in the present situation of lockdown in the entire country, this section of the society (migrant workers) needs succour and help by the concerned Governments especially steps need to be taken by the Government of India, State Governments/ Union Territories in this difficult situation to extend helping hand to these migrant labourers.”

The Indian government took many weeks before deploying trains to transport some of the migrant workers. This came in the wake of at least 17 migrant workers’ death after they were run over by a speeding train in Maharashtra. They were walking back to their native places in Madhya Pradesh but had slept on a train track because of exhaustion.

Days later, 24 migrant workers died in Uttar Pradesh after the truck carrying them met with an accident. The truck was also carrying building materials.

The Supreme Court has listed the matter to be heard on 28 May. It has also directed the Supreme Court registry to serve a copy of the order to the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, as well as the States/Union Territories through their standing counsel.