The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it is not an expert in dealing with issues related to the health and management of migrant workers and that it would be better for the government to start a helpline for the needy. A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Deepak Gupta made this observation during the hearing of a PIL through video conferencing.
The petition related to the alleged exodus of migrant labourers from Delhi and other cities earlier. During the 21-day lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, they were reportedly misled into believing that they would starve to death in the cities. The fact is that all the relief camps set up for them were overflowing with food and other essential supplies. Furthermore, philanthropists and social workers were asked to go back with the aid they had arrived at the camps with, as the camps had no more space to store relief material.
Anti-establishment activist and Sonia Gandhi-era National Advisory Council member Harsha Mander and his friend Anjali Bhardwaj had filed the PIL purportedly to protect the “fundamental right to life” of the migrant workers and to provide wages to the workers who were unemployed due to the lockdown.
Prashant Bhushan, representing the activists, submitted before the bench that more than 4 lakh migrant workers living in shelter homes, termed it a mockery of social distancing.
“If they are kept in shelter homes, even if one person has coronavirus, then everybody around is prone to contract the viral infection. Migrant workers’ families need money for survival because they are dependent on wages”, Bhushan argued.
The Supreme Court said, “We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We will ask the government to set up a helpline for complaints”.
The court had earlier sought a response from the government on the PIL. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, submitted before the bench that Centre was looking into various complaints. “A call centre has been set up. The Home Ministry is daily monitoring the helpline”, said Mehta.
The Supreme Court expressed satisfaction over the government response to the situation. The bench said that the government was monitoring the situation. It has also started a helpline for these workers.
Adjourning the hearing for 13 April, the bench said, “We are not experts in health or management (but we) will ask the government to create a helpline for complaints.” The bench said that it cannot take better policy decisions at this time and does not want to interfere in policy decisions for the next 10 or 15 days.
Earlier, at the commencement of the hearing, advocate Bhushan on behalf of the petitioners had stated that more than 4 lakh workers were currently in shelter homes and it had become a mockery of mutual distance to fight COVID-19. He said that if any of the labourers acquired coronavirus infection, all of them will be hit.
Bhushan said these workers should be allowed to return to their respective homes. Their families need money to stay alive because they depend on the wage, he said.
Bhushan said that more than 40% of the workers had not attempted to flee and that they had lived in their homes in the cities but they did not have money to buy food.
Supreme Court snubs Bhushan
The bench said this was not true. The government had assured the court that such workers were being provided food in the shelter homes, the bench added.
The Supreme Court asked where was the need for money in the given situation. Solicitor-General Mehta said that the government was also paying attention to the complaints received by it. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Home Minister Amit Shah were monitoring the helpline, he said.
The bench expressed helplessness in monitoring the quality of food served to workers at shelter homes.