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If meals are given…: Supreme Court’s query

Solicitor-general Mehta intervened to say that Centre was taking all measures to ameliorate the hardships faced by the migrant labourers
“If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, heading a bench, asked advocate Prashant Bhushan during a brief hearing.

Our Legal Correspondent   |   New Delhi   |   Published 07.04.20, 09:39 PM

The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it could not “supplant” the government’s wisdom on providing succour to lakhs of migrant labourers across the country, who have been hit hard by the lockdown, and wondered why they required wages when their food was being taken care of by the authorities.

“If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, heading a bench, asked advocate Prashant Bhushan during a brief hearing.

“They don’t just need food in the shelter homes…. We need to give them money to send to their families back home. They (family members) are not in shelter homes,” Bhushan replied.

The court was dealing with a PIL jointly filed by civil liberties activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj seeking payment of wages to migrant labourers and daily wage earners who had been left with no avenues of income owing to the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

“By Monday many people will die. The people who are registered with the government need to be given some money to send to their families,” Bhushan pleaded when the CJI said the matter would be taken up again on Monday. The bench expects Bhushan to file by Monday his response to the status report submitted by the Centre on Tuesday to the court.

The petitioners have contended that rather than putting on the private sector the liability of payment of wages to the workers, the governments at the Centre and in the states should do so from the exchequer.

The petitioners have pointed out that private industries may not be able to fufill the directives of the Centre for payment of wages as many of them are on the verge of closure because of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

CJI Bobde made the observation after Bhushan argued that more than four lakh migrant workers had been put up in shelter homes in a “mockery of social distancing”.

“If they are kept in the shelter homes even if one person has the coronavirus, all the others will get it. They should be allowed to go back to their own homes,” Bhushan had said.

When the CJI wondered what was the need to pay wages when the migrants at the camps were being provided food and medical facilities, Bhushan said their families needed money for survival because they were dependent on the wages.

“Our survey report says more than 40 per cent of these workers did not try to migrate and are living in their own homes in the cities. They do not have money to buy even one day’s meal,” Bhushan added.

CJI Bobde, however, said: “We cannot say at this stage that they are not getting the food.”

Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta intervened to say that the Centre was taking all measures to ameliorate the hardships faced by the migrant labourers.

“We are looking into whatever complaints are received. A 24-hour helpline (has been) set up…. The home minister is monitoring the helpline daily,” the government’s law officer said.

Referring to the complaint by the petitioners that the quality of the food supplied at the shelter homes was not up to the mark, Justice Bobde asked the solicitor-general to examine the grievance.

“They (petitioners) are saying that in some shelters the food is inedible. That is not something the court can monitor. We are not experts. We do not intend to interfere with what the government is doing without knowing what it is all about.

“We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We are not experts in health or management. We will ask the government to create a helpline for complaints,” Justice Bobde told Bhushan.

The bench said the question of quality of food and other living conditions was a disputable fact that could be better addressed by the government.

“There’s a dispute on facts and on the best course to be adopted. How can you say the government is not doing anything when you have not seen the status report of the government?” the CJI asked Bhushan.

The counsel argued that the two earlier orders issued by the government with regard to not deducting the wages of migrant workers and landlords not collecting a month’s rent were “unimplementable”.

“We cannot take a better policy decision at this stage. We don’t want to interfere in government decisions for the next 10-15 days,” CJI Bobde said while asking Bhushan to examine the status report submitted by the government and come out with a response.

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