New Delhi: Conveniently ignoring the fact that it was the Uttar Pradesh government of Yogi Adityanath which had tweeted out an assurance of “1000 buses” for migrants on the morning of March 28, the Ministry of Home Affairs has told the Supreme Court that “fake media reports” and “misinformation” were to blame for the large number of desperate workers seen at the Anand Vihar bus terminal and Ghazipur border area in Delhi that evening.
Apart from sidestepping the root cause of the migrant worker crisis – the uncertainty over employment caused by the lockdown, companies and factories laying them off, and their dwindling stock of food and money – this is second time in nine weeks that the Modi government has sought to mislead the apex court about the role of the media.
In a hearing at the end of March, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi and other cities which started after Prime Minister Modi announced the first lockdown from March 25 was triggered by “fake news” in the media. Though the government provided no evidence to back up this claim, the bench headed by Chef Justice S.A. Bobde took Mehta’s words at face value and declared “it… is not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media”.
This charge of ‘fake news’ has now been repeated again with the MHA – as first reported by The Hindu – submitting an affidavit to the court on June 5 asserting that “due to circulation of certain misinformation in the area of GNCT (Delhi), thousands of migrants gathered at Anand Vihar bus terminal and Ghazipur border area on March 28. This gathering occurred due to fake media reports that 1,000 buses for travel of stranded migrants to their home State have been arranged and would be available at the said points.”
UP government had promised buses
While terming reports of buses being arranged as “fake”, the affidavit remained silent on the fact that the UP government on March 28 had made a public promise about providing transportation and that even the figure of “1,000 buses” was put out by Yogi Adityanath’s office.
The chief minister’s office posted a message on its official Twitter page at 11.51 am on March 28 to this effect:
कोरोना वायरस के संक्रमण से निपटने हेतु लागू लॉकडाउन के कारण पलायन कर रहे कामगारों की मदद के लिए यूपी सरकार ने 1000 बसों का इंतजाम किया है जिससे लोग अपने गंतव्य स्थान तक बिना किसी परेशानी के पहुँच सकें।
CM श्री @myogiadityanath जी ने पूरी रात इस व्यवस्था की स्वयं मॉनिटरिंग की है।
— Yogi Adityanath Office (@myogioffice) March 28, 2020
(Translation: “In order to help workers migrating due to the lockdown imposed as part of efforts to combat the Coronavirus, the UP government has made arrangements for 1000 buses which people can use to reach their destinations without any difficulty. CM @myogiadityanath personally monitored this arrangement the whole night”.
The MHA affidavit similarly ignores the fact that the Delhi government had also made a public announcement about buses being arranged to take the migrant workers home.
Upon seeing thousands of migrants who had started to walk back home, the Delhi government too announced that it would arrange buses for them. Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and transport minister Kailash Gehlot had both tweeted about these arrangements.
In a tweet at 12.24 pm on March 28, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had said that 100 buses have been arranged by the Delhi government and 200 by the UP government to transport the migrants.
दिल्ली सरकार की क़रीब 100 और उत्तर प्रदेश सरकार की क़रीब 200 बसें दिल्ली से पैदल जाने की कोशिश कर रहे लोगों को लेकर जा रही है. फिर भी सभी से मेरी अपील है कि लॉकडाउन का पालन करें. कोरोना का असर नियंत्रित रखने के लिए यही समाधान है. बाहर निकलने में कोरोना का पूरा ख़तरा है.
— Manish Sisodia (@msisodia) March 28, 2020
Sticking to the official narrative of tens of thousands of people rendered jobless and even homeless by the suddent lockdown having been misled into setting off from Delhi and elsewhere, the MHA affidavit said, “migrant workers not only in Delhi but also in other parts of the country due to anxiety, instigation and other psychological reasons started a journey to their home town on foot”. (emphasis added)
According to The Hindu, the MHA affidavit also appended a letter written by the Delhi lieutenant governor Anil Baijal to chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on March 29 in which he said, “fears and anxieties were further compounded by the unsubstantial [sic] rumours floating on social media that the lockdown is to be extended for three months”.
Incidentally, the lockdown is now already in its third month.
Though it is now amply clear that the solicitor general had misled the Supreme Court by claiming on March 31 that ‘no one is now on the road’, the affidavit repeats the claim made by the government then and in a subsequent status report that “no migrant worker was on road walking” [sic].
What migrant workers at Anand Vihar said
Apart from its unsubstantiated allegations against the media and its failure to disclose the UP government’s official assurances of “1,000 buses” for migrant workers, the MHA affidavit also runs contrary to what the situation on the ground was.
When correspondents of The Wire visited Anand Vihar on March 28, the migrant workers had a different story to narrate. Most of the daily-wage labourers and migrant workers said that with no assurances of food and little money in hand, they had no choice but to return to their homes, even if it risked carrying the virus to their village.
Many workers also said that their livelihoods and earnings had been impacted by the riots in north east Delhi. With no money to pay their rent or buy food, and the lack of a contingency plan by the government to cater to the needs of daily wage labourers during the lockdown, many decided to head off to their native villages, on foot if need be.
MHA had earlier acknowledged promise of buses
In order to sustain its claim that “fake media reports” were to blame for the crowds which thronged the bus terminal in an attempt to get home, the MHA’s affidavit avoids mentioning the ministry’s own status report of April 29 in which it had acknowledged that it was the state governments themselves which had made arrangements for buses:
“With a view to initially disperse gathering of such migrant workers at the state borders, some state governments did make arrangement for their travel by bus but eventually a final decision was taken not to permit further movement of such migrant workers and required them to stay wherever they have reached while providing for food, shelter and medical facilities.”
From demand for pre-censorship to criminal cases against media
In its submissions to the court at the end of March, the Modi government had asked the CJI’s bench to direct the media to refrain from publishing anything about the pandemic “without first ascertaining the true factual position from the … Central government.”
“In an unprecedented situation of this nature, any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting either in electronic, print or social media and, particularly in web portals has a serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in large sections of the society. Considering the very nature of the infectious disease which the world is struggling to deal with, any panic reaction by any section of the society based upon such reporting would not only be harmful for such section but would harm the entire nation.
“It is, therefore, in the larger interest of justice that when this Hon’ble Court has taken cognizance, this Hon’ble Court is pleased to issue a direction that no electronic/print media/web portal or social media shall print/publish or telecast anything without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Central Government as stated hereinabove.”
Though the court refused to accept this demand for pre-censorship, it drew attention to Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (“disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant”) and section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates “a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic. Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”
Since then, these and other provisions of law have been invoked by the police across the country against scores of journalists to file criminal cases against nearly two dozen journalists whose reports on the pandemic and lockdown have highlighted official acts of negligence by the authorities.
Note: This article expands on the earlier published version, including adding more detail from the MHA affidavit and the tweets by the UP and Delhi governments promising buses for migrant workers.