The Supreme Court on Tuesday termed as “unpardonable” the Centre’s “apathy and lackadaisical attitude” towards creating a national database for unorganised workers, the worst sufferers of the pandemic, and said the labour ministry was “not alive to the concerns of the migrant workers”.
The court pointed out that the Centre had failed to set up a National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) despite directives as far back as August 21, 2018.
Such a database is central to the identification of migrant and unorganised workers who are in need of rations and to the distribution of benefits among them.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R. Shah directed that the portal must be in place by July 31. The court issued directives on making available adequate rations, including foodgrains, and running community kitchens for migrant workers.
“When the unorganised workers are waiting for registration and are waiting to reap the benefits of various welfare schemes of the states and the Centre, the apathy and lackadaisical attitude by the ministry of labour and employment is unpardonable. There was urgency in the portal to be finalised and implemented looking to the pandemic and the dire need of unorganised workers to receive the benefit,” the court said.
“The attitude of the ministry of labour and employment in not completing the module (database) even though directed as early as on 21.08.2018 shows that the ministry is not alive to the concerns of the migrant workers and the non-action of the ministry is strongly disapproved,” the bench added.
It directed the secretary, ministry of labour and employment, to ensure that the portal is finalised and launched before July 31.
“Let the secretary of the ministry of labour and employment file a report to that effect within a period of one month thereafter,” Justice Bhushan, who authored the judgment, said.
The court was dealing with a batch of applications from the NGO Bandhua Mukti Morcha and social activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Harsh Mander and Jagdeep Chhokar on the plight of migrant and unorganised workers facing severe hardships, including starvation, because of the pandemic and the restrictions.
“We have noticed… that several states have stated in their affidavits that they are waiting for the module to be provided by the ministry of labour and employment to proceed further with the registration of unorganised workers,” the apex court said.
The bench said registration was essential to provide access to the migrant workers to different schemes of the Centre and the states. It noted that although the court had passed relevant directives in August 2018 in another matter on the strict implementation of the National Food Security Act, they had not been implemented so far.
At that time, the court had told the labour and employment ministry to provide the module to all states and Union Territories for registering migrant and unorganised workers, but it was yet to be done.
“We impress upon the central government as well as the states and Union Territories to complete the portal for registration under the National Database for Unorganised Workers project as well as implement the same, which by all means may commence not later than 31.07.2021,” the top court said.
“We make it clear that after registration is complete, the correction and updating of the data should be always possible and which is part of the process. It is only after registration of the workers that the states and the Centre shall be able to extend the benefits of the welfare schemes to them.
“Prior to that unless the registration is complete, tall claims by all the states and Union Territories that they have implemented various welfare schemes for the migrant workers and unorganised workers remain only on paper without giving any benefit to unorganised workers,” Justice Bhushan said.
The bench declined to entertain the Centre’s contention that it had allocated over Rs 45 crore for the portal but the process was underway with the National Information Centre, which is providing technical help for the project. The court noted the allocation was made by the government only this year whereas the directions had been passed close to three years ago.
“We have noticed that this court as early as on 21.08.2018 had directed the ministry of labour and employment to make available a module to the states/Union Territories for the purpose of registration.
“No exception can be taken to the central government deciding to create the NDUW portal for facilitating the states and Union Territories to register so that the National Database of Unorganised Workers may become available. A statement is made… that the NIC has been required to develop a portal for which an amount of Rs 45.39 crore has been released in the month of January/February 2021,” Justice Bhushan said.