A government cannot “abdicate” its duties to feed migrant workers, especially during a pandemic, merely because they did not have ration cards, the Supreme Court said in a judgment on Tuesday.
“There is a large number of such migrants who do not possess any card. Their above disability is due to their poverty and lack of education. The State cannot abdicate its duty towards such persons, especially in the wake of the pandemic where large numbers of migrant workers are not able to get jobs which may satisfy their basic needs,” a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R. Shah observed in an 80-page judgment.
The court set July 31 as the deadline for the Centre and the States to ensure their “bounden duty” that none among the estimated 38 crore migrant workers, who form one-fourth the country’s population, goes hungry during the pandemic. These workers too have made “considerable contributions” to the country’s growth and economic development.
The court ordered the State governments to frame schemes to distribute dry ration to migrant workers by July 31. “The States/Union Territories have to make extra efforts to reach migrant labourers so that no migrant labourer is denied two meals a day,” Justice Bhushan, who wrote the judgment, said.
The Centre has to supply whatever additional quantity of food grains a State demanded. The allocation of additional food grains and running of community kitchens in prominent places to feed workers should continue throughout the pandemic, the court directed.
Right to food, one of the “bare necessities of life”, was an intrinsic part of the right to live with dignity, the court told the government.
It ordered all the States to fully implement the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) by July 31. The scheme allows migrant labourers covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) to access food at any fair price shop with his or her ration card in any part of the country.
The court slammed the Labour Ministry for its “unpardonable apathy” in not completing the work of the ₹ 45.39-crore National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) portal to register and identify migrant workers and unorganised labourers to ensure their rights, welfare and food security.
The court had ordered the Ministry to finalise the NDUW module way back in 2018. The Centre has blamed the delay on “software” problems.
The court ordered the Centre to get its act together and complete the work on the portal by July 31. The Labour Secretary has to file a report in a month thereafter. The Centre should complete the registration of workers by December 31 this year or all their “welfare schemes” would be considered “tall claims on paper”.
Justice Bhushan observed, “The Ministry is not alive to the concerns of the migrant workers. The non-action of the Ministry is strongly disapproved”.
The court said an unorganised worker was entitled to direct bank transfer if there was a State policy.
“Both, in the first and the second wave of the pandemic, migrant workers had been exposed to financial and other forms of hardships due to their limited access and claim to the welfare resources offered by the States/Union Territories. Migrant labourers are particularly vulnerable to the economic regression,” the court noted.
It suggested that the Centre ought to “redetermine” the beneficiaries under the Food Security Act in both the urban and rural areas.
The Bench directed the States/Union Territories to register establishments and license contractors under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 and ensure that they provided the authorities complete details of the workers employed with them.