The "pathetic condition of migrant labourers...is nothing but a human tragedy", the Madras High Court said today in strongly-worded comments on the humanitarian crisis sparked by lakhs of migrants frantically trying to return to home states amid the coronavirus lockdown.
Pulling up both the centre and the Tamil Nadu government for failing to "care for their (the migrants) safety and well-being", the court grilled the governments over measures being taken to address the situation and demanded to see state-wise data on the migrant crisis.
"It is a pity to see the migrant labourers walking for days together to reach their native places and in the process, some of them had lost their lives due to accidents. All states should have extended their human services to those migrant labourers," Justices N Kirubakaran and R Hemalatha said.
"One cannot control their tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers shown in the media for the last month. It is nothing but a human tragedy," the court added, while also making a reference to the 16 migrants who were run over by a train in Maharashtra's Aurangabad district last week.
Shorlty after the court's critique, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami appealed to migrants to "stay put in camps" and let the government help them.
"We are coordinating with other states to send you back by trains. Stay put in camps till then. We are footing train fare and travel costs," he said, adding that around 53,000 workers had been sent back to Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal so far.
The Madras High Court had earlier taken suo moto cognisance and has given the centre and state till May 22 to respond to several searching questions about its handling of the crisis. The orders were passed over a petition regarding several hundred Tamil Nadu migrants stranded in Maharashtra.
The court asked the centre if there was any data regarding migrants in each state, pointing out that this would be invaluable in identifying them and helping them to get home.
It demanded to know how many migrants have died so far, which states they belonged to and if there was any plan to compensate their families.
The court also called for data on those evacuated on special trains run by the Railways, and whether the government had plans to evacuate others still stranded.
The court also asked if the mass migration of lakhs of men, women and children one of the reasons for the spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the country.
The impassioned comments come a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition asking for the lakhs of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres home, amid a shutdown in public transportation, to be identified and cared for.
"Let the state decide. Why should the court hear or decide? It is impossible for this court to monitor who is walking and not walking," the top court said.
Lakhs of migrants were left without jobs, money, food or shelter by the nationwide lockdown to break the chain of transmission. With public transport shut because of the lockdown, they had no choice but to walk hundreds, often thousands of kilometres home.
Several have died in horrific accidents on the way.
Early this morning 24 were killed and dozens injured after two trucks collided in Uttar Pradesh's Auraiya district. In another accident in Madhya Pradesh, six were killed and 19 injured after the truck they were travelling in overturned.
Others have died walking or cycling in searing temperatures. Still others have been run over by vehicles on national highways.
The centre, after initially refusing to allow migrants to cross state borders, has since allowed them to return home via special trains. However, amid controversy over tickets and booking, many migrants say these trains take too long and continue to try and walk home.