In a significant, albeit delayed directive, the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday asked states and Union Territories to identify stranded migrants and arrange their transport back home within 15 days. It has also asked administrations to withdraw cases filed against migrants for violating the lockdown guidelines, and the Indian Railways to ensure the availability of trains within 24 hours if there is demand. Both the Centre and the states have been told to prepare a detailed list to identify migrants. The court has instructed that all schemes and employment opportunities available to migrant workers must be publicised; and there must be employment relief and skill mapping.
The SC’s decision comes over 75 days after the national lockdown, imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), led to a humanitarian crisis. Migrant workers, suffering from an acute shortage of food and income and yearning to return home to their families and communities, began walking home, before the Centre, in early May, introduced special trains and buses for their transport. But this process has been riddled with complications. There was a controversy over train fares (before the court stepped in to say that migrants cannot be charged); there have been difficulties in Centre-state coordination over trains; social distancing norms have often not been observed; migrants have had to wait for days, if not weeks, to be able to get on to trains, prompting many to walk; many have died due to hunger and fatigue. All of it has led to a socio-economic tragedy which is almost unprecedented in independent India’s history; this scale of people movement has not been seen since the Partition.
This newspaper has argued that the SC was remiss in not taking up the issue of migrant workers earlier. It only took up the issue on May 26, two months after the crisis began. To be sure, its intervention now is welcome. But it is not just the judiciary; the primary blame for failing to anticipate the needs of migrants and not providing an adequate safety net lies with the executive. It must now expedite the movement of migrants back, and both the Centre and the state governments need to plan ahead. While the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) has emerged as an indispensable policy tool to provide incomes to those who have returned, governments will have to do more in ensuring employment — even as they focus on tackling the spread of the disease. The plight of migrant workers has undermined the credibility of the State and caused enormous distress. It is time to correct the mistakes and find ways to give them a dignified future. The SC should continue to keep an eye on this.