No fare to be charged, feed them, give shelter to those who have hit the road, says SC

New Delhi: The Solicitor General, who is representing the Centre, on Thursday derisively dismissed citizens, who are concerned about the wellbeing of migrants, as ‘prophets of doom.’ He was deposing before the Supreme Court, which is hearing a bunch of petitions on the issue. The Centre, the Solicitor General, insisted, is doing a lot to contain the outbreak.

‘‘But there are Prophets of Doom in our country who only spread negativity… These armchair intellectuals do not recognise the nation’s efforts,” he asserted, possibly referring to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and other like-minded citizens for finding fault with the government’s handling of the crisis. Unimpressed with Mehta's plea that the Centre was taking "unprecedented measures to deal with an unprecedented crisis" and that it has already transported 91 lakh migrants since May 1, the 3-judge Bench bombarded him with questions on the "problems and miseries of migrant labourers stranded in different parts of the country.’’

Given his past experience, when the court has been soft on the issue of coronavirus and lockdown, Mehta was in for a surprise at the manner in which he was grilled. Later, the Bench, noting that there were shortcomings and failures on the part of both the central and the state governments, pronounced a detailed interim order. The highlight of the order is that migrants should not be charged any fare, whether travelling by train or bus; instead, the fare will be shared by the originating and destination states It also ordered the Railways to provide trains as and when the state governments put in a request.

The other salient features of the order are:

• Stranded migrants shall be provided food by the concerned state at places which are publicised and duly notified.

• During journey, the originating state will provide meals and water. The Railways, in turn, will provide meals and water on board. Food and water will also be provided in buses.

• The state shall oversee the registration of migrants and ensure that they board the train or bus at an early date.

• Those found walking on the roads, should be immediately taken to shelters and provided food and other facilities.

While the court was dictating the order, the solicitor general intervened. "I have been told that there is no dearth of trains. As soon as a state government gives a go ahead, we run the trains. We have a national as well as a state plan for the migrant crisis." Mehta also objected to the court directive on migrants found walking – ‘‘that they may be sent to a shelter’’ -- saying that this might encourage more people to walk, too.

The court snubbed him: "People are already walking." Seeking clarity from the solicitor general on the migrants' issues, the Bench said a uniform policy is needed to deal with the crisis.

The judges asked about the estimated time required to shift the migrants -- Do people know if they will be shifted on the 5th day, the 7th day or the 10th day? Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Congress chief spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala, said: "A migrant reaches the station without knowing whether he is going to get in the train or not.’’ (Surjewala and activist Medha Patkar had joined the hearing as intervenors.) Directing all states and the Centre, the court said they must file their affidavits on the steps taken to grant relief to the migrants.

"We are not disputing that the Centre has not taken steps, but whoever needs help is not getting it," Justice Bhushan underlined. "Are they being asked to pay for ticket at any stage? Are the workers being asked to shell out money," the top court asked. It also wanted to know whether these people will be reimbursed later. And, are they getting food as they wait for trains to be transported? When the solicitor general said they get free meals on trains, the court insisted that they must get food when they are made to wait for two or three days.

When the solicitor general wanted 10 minutes to respond to the issue of fares on the "Shramik" special trains, Justice MR Shah said: "It seems there is no clarity about fares and middlemen are taking advantage of the situation." The solicitor general admitted that some states had extracted the fare from the migrants initially, but were not doing so anymore. Mehta claimed nearly 3.36 lakh migrants were being transported every day, and insisted that the government would not stop its efforts till the last migrant was sent back to his/her home state.

The court also wanted to know how the government is ensuring that sick persons do not get on trains and buses and infect others; to this, Mehta replied that concerned authorities are properly screening passengers at boarding and alighting points, to ensure Covid-19 does not spread to rural areas. Getting exasperated at the questioning, the solicitor general said the mechanism of transporting migrants was working at the state level. “So [the Centre] will have to get feedback from the states,” he said.

On being pulled up, he quipped: “I am not shifting responsibility. All states are working in tandem.” Kapil Sibal told the court that it was a humanitarian crisis and there is a Disaster Management act. Under this, a national plan has to be prepared. Also, under the national plan, there is a Section 12, which lays down guidelines for minimum standards of relief. However, he said the entire responsibility has been shifted to the state governments.

‘‘That’s why people are walking. It has nothing to do with politics. In one month 91 lakhs have been transported; as per census, they will take 3 months to complete the process. So what is the plan?" The court asked the counsel for Maharashtra government: How many migrants are waiting to travel back? You are the most affected, so tell us. It has accordingly given time to all states to file counter-affidavits. Senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing for the migrants, said: "there are surplus trains that can be used for migrants. Only 3% trains are being used as of now. There is a total of 4 crore migrants waiting to get back home.’’

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