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Most concerning there were deaths due to hunger: SC in Migrant Workers Case

By Anjali Bhardwaj, Harsh Mander, Jagdeep Chhokar* 

The Supreme Court has heard an application (MA 94/2022) seeking compliance with its judgement in Suo Motu Writ Petition regarding Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers (Suo Motu Writ Petition 6/2020). The matter was heard by the bench of Justices MR Shah and BV Nagarathna.
The case was originally suo motu taken up by the SC during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns in light of distress and problems being faced by migrant workers, who upon sudden cessation of economic activities due to lockdowns, were suddenly rendered without any income, place to stay and no means to reach back to their homes.
In the absence of any planning by the government for the fate of migrant workers, lakhs of workers with their families in tow, walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. Many perished on the way.
The SC had, in June 2021, given comprehensive directions while disposing the case including:
  • Direction to the Central government to undertake exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered in Rural and Urban areas of the State under the Public Distribution System of NFSA as the coverage is still based on 2011 census.
  • Direction to all state governments to bring in place an appropriate scheme for distribution of dry ration to migrant workers without insistence on furnishing of identity proof, and continue such scheme till the time the pandemic continues
  • Direction to all state governments to run community kitchens at prominent places where large number of migrant labourers are found, to provide cooked food and continue this till such time the pandemic continues.
The SC had also directed the Central government to operationalise and prioritise the registration of unorganised sector workers and migrant workers.
In January 2022, in light of flagrant violations of the directions of the SC by the Central government and state governments, a petition was filed to highlight the non-compliance by the respondents.
In the July 21 hearing, it was pointed out by the petitioners that the Central government had failed to undertake any exercise to re-determine coverage under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), and as a result more than 10 crore people who should have been issued ration cards were left out of the purview of the food security net.
As per the affidavit of the Union of India, the census of 2021 has been delayed indefinitely on account of Covid pandemic, and therefore, no expansion of coverage is possible till such time that the census is published which is unlikely to happen in the next couple of years.
It was suggested by the counsel for petitioners that in light of the delay, the government could use official population projections published by the Health Ministry to expand the coverage.
The bench observed that migrant and other workers are the backbone of the country and they must be provided rations at subsidized rates. Justice Nagarathna said that no citizen should die of hunger and it was most concerning that there were deaths due to hunger. She further observed that in villages and in marginalised communities people tie a tight cloth around their stomach to supress their hunger pangs.
It was highlighted by the counsel for the petitioners that of the 27.95 crore workers registered on the e-shram portal, it must be verified how many persons possessed ration cards and those without cards must be provided rations either by including them under NFSA or through some other scheme.
Affidavit filed by Telangana government recorded that over 75% of migrant workers do not possess ration cards
It was further pointed out that as per the affidavit filed by Telangana government it is recorded that over 75% of migrant workers do not possess ration cards (46,776 of the 60,980 migrant workers). 
The bench observed that the purpose of registration is to facilitate access to all applicable welfare benefits and asked the Union of India to place before it the particulars that are captured while registering workers. The bench said that if those who are registered do not possess ration cards, the government must immediately make arrangement to provide foodgrains at subsidized costs to them.
On the issue of states implementing schemes for providing rations to migrant workers for which foodgrains are to be provided by the Central government through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), it was highlighted by the petitioners that the grains are being provided at very high rates by central government, making it difficult for states to evolve a scheme.
In this regard, the correspondence between the Telangana government and the Central government was pointed out which was also included in a note submitted on behalf of the petitioners.
The bench, after hearing the matter, said they will pass orders summarising the steps taken so far and what further needs to be done in terms of its directions contained in the judgment of June 2021.
Counsels Prashant Bhushan and Cheryl D’Souza represented the petitioners in the matter.
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*Petitioners in Miscellaneous Application 94 of 2022. Intervenors in suo motu petition (civil) 6/2020

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