On the Covid-19 lockdown and the migrant workers’ distress, it will be educative to have a critical look at the varying responses from the Supreme Court and seven High Courts of Madras to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to Gujarat.
On the migrants’ plight, a division bench of the Madras High Court observed on May 15, “One cannot control his/her tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers shown in the media for the past one month. It is nothing but a human tragedy”.
On the same day, a division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court said, “it will be failing in its role” if it did not react to the plight of the migrants. The court thereafter directed the state government to locate the migrants and make food, shelter homes and travel arrangements available to them. I applaud this humanitarian face of the judiciary.
The Calcutta High Court directed the state government to file a status report on its handling of the migrants’ crisis. The Gujarat High Court also took cognizance of the steep fee charged by private hospitals in treating Covid patients.
A division bench of the Karnataka High Court, headed by its Chief Justice Abhay Oka, went to the extent of questioning the state government’s decision not to fund the travel of migrant workers if their home states do not deposit funds for train fares (IE, May 20). The Karnataka government had apparently taken shelter under the Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene in the migrants’ issue.
It may be recalled that the Supreme Court on May 15 struck a different note on a PIL on the migrants’ woes. In fact, it declined to hear the PIL which had sought directions to the Central government to identify stranded migrants and ensure their safety. Justice Nageswara Rao, who headed the three-judge bench, remarked: “There are people walking and not stopping. How can we stop it?” The top court further remarked that it was for the states to deal with the situation.
These varied responses by the judiciary takes me to the days of the Emergency when the country’s High Courts proved to be the champions of citizens’ democratic rights. Ironically, it was during that critical period, the Supreme Court seemed to be hamstrung by the Emergency and sided with the ruling regime which was clearing taking the people away from the democratic path as provided for them in the Constitution.
On our part, we the media, then fully realized that the only effective safe guard for the country’s democracy is the independence of the judiciary, not only during a normal period but also at the time of a crisis.
In this context, it needs to be emphasized that equally crucial is the role played by independent-minded media persons. They are not supposed to bend or crawl in the face of an Emergency-like situation. Here we have to always keep in mind that we cannot blindly trust a political establishment on citizens’ rights since the ruling masters’ might be having their political goals and ideas. In such a complex situation the media persons have to constantly remember that the price of freedom is constant vigilance.
Talking about the migrant workers’ plight need not be taken as a reflection on the Modi government which has, by and large, done a fairly good job. My concern is mainly about the handling of the situation to the advantage of the migrants. They have to be treated with care and a human touch. This can make all the difference between their sufferings and delight. I am also disturbed about communication gaps between the ruling elite and the migrants. Equally disquieting is the absence of coordinated action on the ground.
However, viewed against the larger canvas of governance, it must be said that a lot depends on the quality of the Members of Parliament. It ought to be remembered that Parliament is a creature of a written constitution and not its creator.
The sovereignty of Parliament, however, does not extend to the point of permitting it to play duck and drakes with the Constitution if this goes against its basic format and fundamental rights of citizens. Nor does it give any party the right to disrupt the proceedings of Parliament, whatever might be the nature of provocation by the ruling establishment.
Parliament as a premier institution of our democracy has to be respected both by the opposition and the ruling class. I am of the view that competitive negativism does not help any political party to retain its political goodwill in the long run.
What is equally important is to ensure free and independent run of constitutionally blessed institutions like the judiciary, the Election Commission, CAG, CVC etc. Even the functioning of investigation agencies like CBI, CID etc has to be depoliticized. They must be allowed to function professionally and independently and not as an instrument of manipulation by the powers-that-be.
I have taken the liberty of raising wider issues which, directly or indirectly, have a bearing on citizens’ basic rights and the independence of the judiciary without any biases or malice against anyone on political grounds.
I passionately feel that the sufferings of lakhs of migrant workers cannot be taken in isolation. Their plight has to be seen as the nation’s prime concern and it is the job of citizens, the media persons included, to raise the migrants’ issue dispassionately without any political angularities or biases.
A humanitarian tragedy has to be viewed only from human angles and compassionate justice. I wish to quote Fali S Nariman’s article in The of May 22. He has candidly stated: “Under our Constitution, high courts are not subordinate to the Supreme Court – although decision of the Supreme Court are binding on the high courts.”
The well-known constitutional jurist and senior advocate has said that the highest court declined to give any direction the majoritarian government at the Centre to make transport available to migrant workers; it also failed to implead the concerned states as to enable the apex court to issue directions to state governments to ensure humanitarian relief and so put an end to the degrading spectacle of startling migrant workers walking hundreds of miles to their homes.
What matters is a human touch to court verdicts in a Covid-like situation. A humanitarian approach puts the judiciary one up in the realm of justice when oppressed persons deserve protection.
Interestingly, taking cognizance of “problems and miseries of migrant labourers”, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on May 26 said candidly that “there have been inadequacies and certain lapses” on the part of the central and the state government in dealing with the migrant workers’ crisis during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The apex court bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, S K Kaul and M R Shah ordered the Centre and the States to immediately provide transport, food and shelter free of cost to the stranded migrant workers. This is refreshingly different from the court’s earlier observations on the PIL. I must say that the Supreme Court’s May 26 order shows its humanitarian approach to the migrants’ crisis, I would simply salute the judges for their humanitarian response to the migrant workers’ problems.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.