The worst may be over for the country’s inter-State workers. Many have returned home. More may be accommodated in Shramik trains scheduled to run, and some, it appears, do not mind staying where they are for work, now that the ‘unlock’ phase has begun in many parts of the country. The Supreme Court has fixed a 15-day deadline for the completion of the process of transporting all of them back home, besides asking governments across the country to drop criminal cases against them for violating the lockdown since it was imposed at short notice on March 25. Pursuing the lockdown violation charge would have been an exercise in triviality in the face of the desperation and despair this section of the population faced. Notwithstanding lingering criticism that the Supreme Court’s intervention, on its motion, may have come too late, there ought to be a sense of relief over the improvement in their situation. Going by official claims by the Centre, as many as 57.22 lakh migrant workers have returned to their home towns from the States in which they have been earning a living. Given the scale of the unprecedented misery millions of them found themselves in over the last two months, the idea that both authorities and the courts are making an effort to ameliorate their living conditions is an undoubted source of comfort and relief. What stands out in the response of the Union government to the crisis and to the myriad voices that raised concern over the tribulations of such a large section of citizens is the ferocity and bull-headedness with which it sought to deny the magnitude of their suffering.
Chastened by open criticism from former members of the higher judiciary, as well as many senior lawyers and jurists, the top court has sought to redeem its stature by a series of directions; as well as by indicating its willingness to go into all pending issues. As part of its efforts, it made all State governments file comprehensive affidavits on the action they had taken to facilitate the return of the workers, provide them with immediate relief and the arrangements made for food and water for them during train journeys. It has further asked the States to spell out their plans for registering all the workers, their skills, their areas of employment and the different welfare and employment schemes meant for them. Several problems remain, not the least of them being the lapses on the part of the authorities across the country in dealing with the crisis. The inadequacy of facilities for registering and identifying those who wished to travel and the paucity of timely information and effective communication relating to the movement of trains and their destinations were other issues. Overall, the Court’s belated intervention has occasioned a moment of much-needed introspection for everyone concerned on their responses, attitudes and shortcomings.