Uncritical endorsement: On exodus of migrant workers and the Supreme Court

Supreme Court must ask more probing questions on the way the government is handling the pandemic.

Updated - April 02, 2020 12:48 am IST

Published - April 02, 2020 12:02 am IST

There are two aspects to the Supreme Court’s limited intervention in response to the humanitarian crisis set off by the exodus of migrant workers , following the announcement of a country-wide lockdown . In a brief order, the highlight of which is its full endorsement of the Centre’s response to the pandemic, the Court has, first, underscored the need for kindness by the police and the authorities in the way they treat the workers and their families. Second, it has uncritically accepted the official narrative that “fake news” about the duration of the lockdown being “three months” caused a panic reaction from migrant workers across States. In the light of this finding — if it can be described thus — the Court has chosen to “direct the media to refer to and publish the official version about the developments”, with a disclaimer that it does not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic. It has noted an offer from the Solicitor-General to bring out a daily bulletin to clear people’s doubts. It recorded its expectation that the media, including social media, would “maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated”. Significantly, the order flags the penal provisions in the law for punishing those who disseminate information amounting to false alarm or disobedience to a public servant’s instructions.

It would be an exaggeration if anyone sees in this direction or appeal to the media for responsible journalism any attempt at censorship, but it is disappointing that the Court finds credible the government’s claim about “fake news” being the main factor behind the exodus. It was quite obvious that the short notice of just four hours for the lockdown to take effect, the lack of planning and coordination with the States, the fears of the people about being left without cash and running out of food, and worries about their families back home were the principal reasons. A welcome feature of the Court’s approach is that it did not concede the government’s ill-advised request for a direction to restrain the media from reporting or publishing “anything” without ascertaining the factual position from the government. Implicit in this prayer was an attempt to control information, the very antithesis of the current need for the government to ensure proactive disclosure and dissemination of accurate data. To an extent, the Court’s restraint is understandable; as, dealing with a pandemic, be it in the form of framing a strategy for prevention and treatment, or limiting its devastating economic fallout, is primarily the duty of the executive. However, as it has chosen to examine the humanitarian dimension to the crisis, it would be in the fitness of things if it asked more searching questions of the government and ensured greater accountability in these distressing times.

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