The government’s delay in completing a national database to identify and register migrant workers in order to provide them benefits in times of dire need stood out like a sore thumb in a Supreme Court hearing on Monday.
“We impress upon the Central government and the State Government[s] to complete the process of registration of organised workers at an early date so that unorganised workers are able to reap the benefit of different schemes of the Centre and the States which, without proper registration and identity card, seems to be difficult to implement on the ground,” a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R. Shah noted in its order.
The court acknowledged the submissions made by advocate Prashant Bhushan that such a database would have made it easier for the government to identify and provide essentials such as food and dry rations to stranded migrant labourers during the second wave of the pandemic.
‘We are not satisfied’
“The direction [for the database] was issued by this court in 2018...Your process is very slow. We are not satisfied. We will pass orders on this,” Justice Bhushan addressed Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre.
Mr. Bhushan, who represents activists seeking urgent measures to provide food and life support for migrant workers, said: “People are dying… 24 crore people have been pushed below the poverty line. The situation is worse than last year… Government has said they have not been able to even put up a portal for the registration of workers”.
Many of these destitute workers required immediate cash transfers to purchase essentials. The pandemic had left them with no means of livelihood, he stated.
Justice Bhushan said, “A uniform national data grid of migrant workers, in which both the Centre and States provide inputs should be there. This would ensure that benefits meant for migrant workers reach them and no other.”
The court asked the government to clarify what steps it had taken under the Code of Social Security of 2020.
During the hearing, Justice Shah pointed out that many of the workers would be illiterate and unable to register online. It was a welfare government’s obligation to reach out to the workers, their employers and contractors.
“It should be a two-way approach. The government should go to the workers and the workers can also approach the government… You [government] must reach out to employers, contractors, etc. You should tell them to give information about their workers or have their licences cancelled,” he said. There should be some “supervisory authority” to take a weekly account of the transfer of benefits to workers.
“The government is spending thousands of crores, but is it [benefits] really reaching them [the workers]” Justice Shah asked Mr. Mehta, who promised to file a detailed affidavit in response.
The Labour Ministry, Mr. Mehta said, had started work on the database. He assured the court that he would talk to the Labour Secretary and get the necessary information on its status.
Mr. Bhushan interjected to say that the immediate handing out of dry rations and cooked food, however, during the second wave should not depend on the completion of this database. The need for food among the migrant population was urgent and could not wait.
The court agreed, clarifying that provision of food, whether dry rations or cooked food, should not wait till the completion of the registration process of migrant workers on the proposed database.
Mr. Bhushan said that last year the Centre recorded eight crore migrant workers without ration cards. The States had identified 2.8 crore of them. Other workers were registered under various laws. The Centre and the States should at least provide these people with immediate benefits without waiting any further.