The union government told the Supreme Court today it was supplying food to more than 22,88,000 poor people — during the hearing (via video conferencing) in a case of the alleged exodus of poor people, mostly labourers, see last weekend amid the lockdown imposed in the country to prevent the spreading of the infection of coronavirus. Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta was responding to a petition advocate AA Srivastava had filed, asking the apex court to direct the government to provide housing and drinking facilities to migrant workers.
The solicitor-general said about the spectacle on Saturday and Sunday that there was a complete ban on inter-state movement, as the reverse migration could spread coronavirus to the small towns and villages. However, he added that one out of every three migrant workers who has returned him might have carried with him the dreaded coronavirus disease (COVID).
The government acknowledged before the Supreme Court that these were needy people, migrants and daily-wage labourers and, therefore, those without a roof on their heads had been kept in shelters.
Mehta said that the government was considering counselling the poor to allay the fear instilled in them. He was responding to a comment by the court that, if needed, the government must organise “bhajans-kirtans” to stop these people from leaving for their villages.
The government told the Supreme Court bench of CJI SA Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao that, as per the feedback received from the home secretary, there was not a single poor man or labourer in the streets of the cities now, trying to go back to his village.
The petition also asked for a Supreme Court direction to both the Centre and the states governments, ordering medical facilities, provision of food and drink, relief camps, etc for the poor. The petition said that not only the poor but also the middle class of the country, the taxpayers, were affected.
Last Saturday during the COVID lockdown, people were overwhelmed by the sudden emergence of thousands of migrant workers in the streets of different cities — with the largest crowd seen in Delhi — rushing to bus terminuses and railway stations to return to their respective villages.
In Delhi-NCR, thousands of them left for their homes in nearby states on foot. This was preceded by a rumour that went wild in the slums and unauthorised colonies in Delhi that there would soon be no food left for the poor — even as the relief centres for the lowest stratum of the economy was overflowing with food and philanthropists were asked to go back, as the organisers of relief camps could stock no more food and aid material.
The union government had completed the preparations for relief on 17 March before the lockdown was announced, Mehta told the court. And on realising that the industrial units where these labourers work would not be able to pay them, the union and state governments — as well as RSS, Ramakrishna Mission and other NGOs — increased the supply of relief material to the poor.
Meanwhile, COVID cases across the country have reached 1,251. Out of these, the China-origin biological agent is still active in 1,117 patients whereas 101 people have fully recovered.
So far, 32 people have died in the outbreak. Maharashtra tops the table with 231 cases. Kerala has 222 positive cases.
Mehta told the court that the government machinery had screened 3,48,000 people in the last 21 days.