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Nobody’s Children

The misery of migrant workers continues across the country

Taking suo motu cognisance of media reports and representations made by lawyers on the plight of millions of migrant workers across the country, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the central and state governments to immediately provide transport, food and shelter to the hapless people free of cost. The apex court regretted that though arrangements were made by central and state authorities to send workers back there have been inadequacies and lapses on the part of both in dealing with the miseries of the migrant workers during the lockdown. Tens of thousands of migrant workers, men, women and children, walked for hundreds of miles. Some of them died out of starvation and exhaustion. The human crisis continues with large numbers of migrant workers still walking or going on bicycles and cycle rickshaws to their homes. Thousands of them are stranded on roads, highways, railway stations and state borders. The apex court response came as a surprise as it had earlier rejected several public interest litigation petitions.  The court has directed Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta to assist the court and produce on record by May 28 measures taken by the Centre so far to alleviate the migrants’ sufferings.

Since the country was placed under lockdown from March 25, stories of the plight of migrant workers and other downtrodden sections of society have filled the pages of newspapers and were highlighted on electronic and social media. They lost their livelihood as everything came to a standstill in the country during the lockdown which has lasted nine weeks. With no work, food to survive and transport, the migrants across the country were forced to travel by foot under the scorching summer sun. The rail and bus transport arrangements made by the central and state authorities after much delay have been found to be inadequate, adding to the woes of the hapless workers. Even after four weeks of the start of transport facilities, migrants continue to rush at the railway stations and bus stands to catch the first available mode of transport to reach their homes in distant places.

There have been horrifying cases of employers and contractors denying the migrant workers even the payments that were due to them for their earlier works. Their landlords started pressurizing them to leave their accommodation.  The central government did not show the foresight to pass orders that could have provided shelter and food to the migrant workers during the lockdown. Goa too has had its share of migrant workers being left in the lurch. It was only after media reports that these underprivileged people got some help in one form or the other. In one of the latest incidents in the state, a contractor refused to let the migrant labourers hired by him to return home in Jharkhand on the premise that his work was still incomplete. There have been tragic tales of home-bound migrant workers dying of hunger, being killed in accidents, run over by trucks and buses. Their misery appears to be far from over even after more than two months.

While millions of migrant labourers managed to reach home overcoming hellish conditions during the journey on foot, on a cycle or in trains or buses, there are still a considerable number of them who are waiting to reach home. Reports have spoken of the migrants remaining hungry for a day or more. Those travelling by Shramik specials did not have adequate food or water. Some said they had to drink bathroom water. The central and state governments have utterly failed in providing help to the migrant labourers. When millions of the poor men, women and children were walking home on foot, with baggage on their backs or heads, none of the state governments or central governments came out to provide them food or water or transport. It was only recently that the central government and state governments woke up to their plight. But even now they have failed to take care of the problems of all the migrant labourers. We hope when the Solicitor General submits a report to the Supreme Court he gives a true picture of the successes and failures of the central and state governments in planning for helping migrant workers before and after the declaration of the lockdown.

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