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New Delhi: A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court by three prominent civil rights activists regarding the Union and state governments’ failure to comply with the apex court’s directions to ensure the food and social security of migrant workers.
The present petition has been filed by activists Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Jagdeep Chhokar who were intervenors in the suo motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 6 of 2020 regarding the “problems and miseries of migrant workers” in which the Supreme Court, had on June 29, 2021, issued specific directions to the Union and state governments.
‘Suo motu cognisance’ refers to an authority (in this case, the Supreme Court) taking up a matter of its own accord, without being prompted to do so by a third party.
Union was told to re-determine beneficiaries; states to provide dry rations to migrant workers
The top court had directed the Union government to undertake an exercise to “re-determine” the total number of persons from the rural and urban areas of states covered under the Public Distribution System (PDS) of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. This exercise was to be done under Section 9 of the NFSA (which deals with coverage) since the current coverage is still based on the 2011 census.
In turn, the court directed all state governments to put an appropriate scheme in place for the distribution of dry ration to migrant workers, without insisting that they furnish identity proof, and to run community kitchens at prominent places where large numbers of migrant workers collected in order to provide them with hygienic, cooked food. The states were also to continue with both these measures for as long as the COVID pandemic continues.
However, the petition, being argued by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, has claimed that the Union government and most state governments have failed to implement and operationalise these directions.
‘Non-compliance concerning as COVID cases mount’
“The non-compliance is even more concerning as the country is once again facing rising number of COVID cases and nearly all states have put in place lockdowns, restrictions and curfews thereby exacerbating the economic distress and hardships of migrant workers, most of whom are in the unorganised sector and, therefore, have no social or financial security net to fall back on,” the petitioners said.
Lamenting the scant regard being paid to the hardships faced by these migrant workers, the petitioners added that “they are once again facing loss of livelihood, uncertainty and hunger.”
The petition stated that it relies on information accessed under the RTI Act and replies from governments to the legal notices sent regarding the implementation of the Supreme Court’s directions to highlight the violation of the judgment.
‘Union yet to start exercise to increase PDS coverage’
On the issue of increasing coverage under the PDS, the petitioners have highlighted that the Union government has, till date, not initiated any exercise to re-determine coverage. In a reply to an RTI inquiry asking about the steps taken following the SC judgment, the petitioners said, the Union government stated that “any revision in the State/UT-wise coverage shall be possible after the data of next census is published. Judgment passed by Honourable Supreme Court is being examined at present (sic).”
With the 2021 census delayed on account of COVID and the data unlikely to come out for next two to three years, the petitioners said the failure of the government to initiate the re-determination exercise was in flagrant violation of the Supreme Court’s directions, which were issued in the context of the pandemic and thus required urgent, time-bound action.
Only five states replied to legal notices on complying with SC directions on ration scheme
The petitioners said that following the June 29 judgment, legal notices were sent to all the states to ensure time-bound compliance with the directions of the SC, including the directions to state governments to put in place a scheme for providing dry rations to migrant workers who do not possess ration cards. However, only five states replied to the legal notices of which only Odisha, Delhi and Assam provided details of the schemes formulated by them.
Further, an RTI application was filed seeking details from the Union government of the states that had asked for additional food grains to give to migrant workers and whether the same had been supplied. The reply revealed that, as of September, 2021 only two state governments – those of Telangana and Meghalaya – sought additional food grains for providing rations to migrant workers and even that was not provided by the Union government.
The petition further noted that the Union government was well aware of the distress and had therefore extended the operation of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY) till March, 2022 through which 80 crore people who possess ration cards, would be entitled to receive an additional five kg of rations, over and above the five kg entitled to each person. However, no scheme has been put in place for poor and vulnerable families who do not possess ration cards.
The petition, which seeks the immediate implementation of the June 29 directions, was brought up by Bhushan before a bench of the Chief Justice of India on Thursday, seeking the listing of the matter. CJI Ramana indicated that he will look into it, the petitioners said.