The Railways should provide trains as and when the state governments put in a request and the migrants will not pay any fare, the Supreme Court said today in a series of orders to help stranded migrant labourers, whose plight has become one of the abiding images of the 60-day countrywide lockdown to control coronavirus. The railways, the court also said, will have to arrange for food and water for the migrants as long as they are on the trains.
The states, the three-judge bench said, will be in charge of overseeing the registration of migrant workers and ensure that they board a train or bus. They should also provide food and water to migrant workers who are stranded in the state.
Migrant workers found walking home should immediately be taken to shelters and provided food and all facilities. Complete information should be publicised to all concerned," the judges added.
The court also said that no fare for train or bus should be charged from the migrant workers. The fare will be shared by the states.
When the court asked for clarity on who pays for the ticket, the Solicitor General said, "Some originating state pays, some receiving states are paying and some states are reimbursing", refering to the ticket price, which comes up to 15 per cent of the total cost of travel. The Centre earlier said this could be paid by the states as it is already bearing 85 per cent of the cost of the travel.
The court's intervention came amid a huge political battle between the Centre and a few opposition-ruled states. Maharashtra, which has an especially large number of migrants, has been locked in a tussle with the railway ministry since the weekend. While the state has accused the Centre of not making trains available, the Centre alleges it has the trains, but the state has not done its homework or provided passengers.
Today, veteran lawyers Kapil Sibal and Indira Jaisingh pointed out that the Railways was only operating at 3 per cent capacity and at the current rate, will take 3 months to transport all migrants.
"According to 1991 census, the migrant labour was more than 3 crore. By 2020 the number should be about 4 crores. If they have transported 91 lakh people in 27 days, it should take another 3 months to transport the rest," Kapil Sibal said.
The court -- which had initially asked a series of hard questions to the Centre regarding food, funding, shelter and the entire logistics of transportation -- said the major problem is the "transportation of migrants and providing them food".
"The first problem is of transport. They are waiting for weeks even after registration. Are these people being asked to shell out any money at any stage? How is the state paying," the judges questioned.
"We accept that it's not possible to transport everyone at the same time. But food and shelter must be given till they can get transport," the court said.
The Centre, after providing the relevant figures of trains run, migrants transported and meals provided, said, "A large number of steps were taken by the government and the Supreme Court was fully satisfied about it earlier".
The top court, which in an earlier hearing had questioned how it could "stop people from sleeping on train tracks", had taken up the issue following questions over its refusal to act on the crisis and strong comments by the high courts of Madras and Andhra Pradesh.
Over the last weeks, a series of instances were reported of hungry and desperate migrants looting food carts at various railway stations across the country. Several migrants have died after being on the trains without food and water in the sizzling heat. Yesterday, a heartbreaking video of a child trying wake his dead mother had gone viral.
There have also been hordes of people who have been unable to get on trains. Thousands have been gathering outside Mumbai's railways stations and turned away by the police as they have been unable to register themselves in a system marred by glitches.
Desperate, many have taken to the road, paying their last penny to buy a seat on illegal trucks and auto rickshaws. Others have just continued on foot, many of the collapsing close to home due to hunger and exhaustion.