Infringing The Fundamental Rights Inscribed Under Article 21: The Migrant Labourer Crisis
Written by: Aman Kadri & Alay Ninad Raje, Students, Institute of Law, Nirma University
The Concept of Right to life with dignity conferred upon by Article 21 of the Constitution was expanded by the Supreme Court in the case of Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi, where it was held by the Court that, “Right to life is not just restricted to mere animal existence but includes right to life with dignity & all that goes along with it for living a quality life such as the basic amenities of food, clothing, shelter, good health, free movement & the components of this right will depend upon the economic development of the nation.” The lockdown imposed by the government has caused an unprecedented economic hardship on daily wage earners. This article critically analyses the Migrant Workers’ situation w.r.t Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Absence of an Ideal National Plan
The after-effects of the National Lockdown has been very chaotic and confusing. It has caused a lot of hardship to the economically weaker section of the society and especially to the migrant workers. As per the census carried out in the country in the year 2011, the India had 41 million migrant workers and due to the lockdown, these migrant and daily wageworkers have lost their only means of livelihood as all activities except the essential activities were stopped in the entire nation. Because of which all these daily wageworkers were rendered economically vulnerable. They had hardly any money left in their hands and were without food and shelter.
A Constitution bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court held in the case of M Nagraj v. Union of India., with respect to Article 21 that, not only the rights, liberties, and freedoms of the individual are meant to be protected against and by the State, but also they are ought to be facilitated by the State, i.e. it is the duty of the State to facilitate it human dignity by taking positive steps in that direction, along with guarding the human dignity. The Hon’ble Court Stressed on the point that the human dignity refers to the intrinsic value of every human being which is to be respected by everyone, and that there cannot be an exact definition it. It neither can be taken away nor can it be simply given. It simply exists. Every human being has dignity by virtue of his existence. Because, the basic amenities of food, clothing, shelter are considered as an integral part of right to life with dignity under Article 21 and it is the duty of the state to facilitate it.
No Immediate Relief
And at the initial stage of the lockdown, the government did not make any arrangement for the migrant and daily wage workers regarding their wages, food, and shelter due to which lakhs of migrant workers started walking back to their native place. The purpose of walking was, they would at least get a place to live and their villages made no provisions. In addition to this, the financial package announced by the government did not have any relief for the migrated workers. Moreover, the free food grains announced by the central government were available to them at their registered voter address. Therefore, they were forced to walk back to their native. Subsequently, this instance created a mockery of the idea of social distancing sought to be imposed by the lockdown.
In response to the mass reverse migration and gathering of masses near Bus terminal, Railway station, Border etc., the government on 29th March issued an order to restrict the movement of migrants by stating that such migration is a complete violation of lockdown. It ordered the authorities to stop the migrants where they were and ordered all the necessary authorities to ensure adequate arrangements are made for the migrants and also ordered the employers of the daily wageworkers to pay them wages on due date without any deduction during the period of lockdown.
The government order does not take into consideration the ground realities of the migrant workers by not considering so many consequences, which makes the order unenforceable. Firstly, Many of the Small scale industries will not be in a position to pay workers their salaries since their businesses have closed down as a consequence of the lockdown; Secondly, it does not make any provision for the means of livelihood for a large percentage of migrant workers that are self-employed as Street vendor, Rickshaw pullers, petty service providers, etc. who lost their work due to lockdown; Thirdly, the government does not have an accurate record of workers employed in the informal sector, and therefore, will not have the necessary information to enforce the order as also stated by officials to the media. The order also directs State/Union Territory- Governments to ensure adequate arrangements of temporary shelters, and provision of food etc. for the poor and needy people, including migrant labourers standard due to lock the measures in their respective areas.
Empathy Was Negligibly Shown Towards These People
Towards the end of March, hundreds of thousands of helpless daily wage earning Migrant workers fled the cities where they work, for their homes as the government planned for extending the lockdown. A large number of them walking along with their families, great distances on empty highways. Thousands of daily wagers and labourers from Delhi, Haryana and even Punjab reached Delhi's Anand Vihar, Ghazipur and Ghaziabad's Lal Kuan areas after arduous treks on foot in a bid to ride buses to their respective native places. Because, the order of the National Executive Committees of imposing a lockdown throughout the nation has rendered most of the migrant labourers, which has subsequently resulted in loss of food, clothing and shelter for the migrant labourers and their consequent forced migration back to their hometown, makes a mockery of the rules and norms of social distancing.
The government started the lockdown initially announcing till 1st of April, and it went on extending without letting the people prepare for the same. It was extended till 14th April and then further up till 3rd May, which is eventually now advanced till end of May, as the govt. declared Lockdown 4.0 and soon after the Prime Minister declared extension of lockdown till 3rd of May, thousands of daily wage earning Migrant Workers started gathering in vain at the Bus and the Train station. They gathered in large numbers, defeating the sole purpose of social distancing, because they were forced to move to their native land, as they had no jobs, no money and no source of food. In Maharashtra Bandra West, Thane and Navi Mumbai saw the highest number of Migrant workers, trying to leave the State as their survival was at stake. Hyderabad govt at the very instance of such reactions, convinced the people to stay put instead of walking 800 km to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, by promising them that they will be given Rs 500 per head and 12 kg of rice. Migrant Workers in Ahmedabad were determined to walk 13,000 km to their villages in Uttar Pradesh instead of dying hungry here, while the workers of Surat's Textiles Factories, demanded that they be allowed to go back to their homes and they alleged that their bosses have left them bereft of money and food. Most of the workers are native to Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who live in rented accommodations, this lockdown is a calamity, as they are not getting their wages and thus, are not able to afford the rent or in some cases even food. As this lockdown has stopped the trains from running and the state borders are sealed, all these unfortunate people have started to walk thousands of kilometres. On 10th May Indian Railways, announced that several passenger trains will now operate between New Delhi and states of Kerala, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Assam, Chattisgarh, Jammu, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Telangana, Tripura and West Bengal and these trains were named “Shramik/Special Trains”.
The Union government on 23rd May said that amongst the 4 crore Migrant workers employed in different parts of the country, around 75 lakhs of them have returned home in trains and buses since the nationwide lockdown was imposed, also, the Railway Ministry has engaged over 2,600 ''Shramik/Special Trains'' since May 1 for transportation of these Migrant workers. Of these 75 lakh around 35 lakh have reached their native places using ''Shramik'' trains, while 40 lakh have travelled in buses. The Union government has asked all the States and UTs to provide them food and shelter. And on 28th March, the Home Ministry issued an order empowering the states and UTs to use funds under the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) for providing food and shelter to the Migrant labourers, furthermore, transportation of migrant workers through trucks is now banned in some States.
But here is where the Central government took an unacceptable step, i.e. of charging these workers for the service of the Trains. Even though, the Union govt is trying to shift the blame of this mistake on the State govt, the paper trail indicates that the States were ordered to “collect the ticket fare” and give this amount to the Indian Railways. The guidelines issued by the Railway Ministry on May 2 for the Shramik Trains, clearly show an entire segment on “sale” of tickets. While the Clause 11(b) of the guidelines state that the Railways shall print the tickets for the trains and give them to the respective local state government authority, the subsequent sub-clause (c) states: “The local state government authority shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the railways.” Moreover, District Collector of Ahmedabad, K.K. Nirala said that the train fare was collected from the migrants and Vipul Mitra, Additional Chief Secretary, Labour and Employment, of Gujarat said that as there is no communication for waiving off the charges, the Workers will have to bear the travel expense, also the Kerala government has collected and paid Rs 32 Lakh to the Railways till now and the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, also confirmed that this money was collected through the travel fares that they charged the workers with.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India, held that, “The Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 39[e], Article 47 & Article 48 collectively cast a duty upon the State to protect and improve public health.” Thus, the conditions to which the Migrant Labourers where subjected indicates a negligence of the Directive Principle by the Govt.
Migrant workers have always been considered as the weakest and oppressed and a special care is required from the government for them while carrying out any steps. The same was expected from the government this time. Inspite of various warnings the government failed to do so as it failed to provide the migrant worker of the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.
 Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi, (1981) AIR 784
 Prabhjote Gill, A sobbing child migrant worker stranded in Delhi without shelter, job and a way back home — is only one among lakhs of his peers, BUSINESS INSIDER INDIA, Mar. 26, 2020.  M Nagraj v. Union of India, 8. SCC 212 (2006).  Id.  Kaushal Shroff, “We are deserted”: Migrant workers forced to walk hundreds of kilometres due to lockdown, THE CARAVAN, Mar. 26, 2020.  Sahil Joshi, Lockdown 2.0: From Bandra to Surat, migrant crisis across India makes coronavirus fight tougher, INDIA TODAY, (Apr. 14, 2020 12:26 AM), https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/india-coronavirus-lockdown-migrant-crisis-bandra-mumbra-ahmedabad-surat-hyderabad-1666968-2020-04-14.  Railways resume passenger train services – All you need to know about IRCTC ticket bookings and precautions, ETNOWNEWS.COM (May. 12, 2020, 12:28 PM), https://www.timesnownews.com/business-economy/industry/article/railways-resume-passenger-train-services-all-you-need-to-know-about-irctc-ticket-bookings-and-precautions/590619.  4 Crore Migrant Workers In India, 75 Lakh Returned Home So Far: Centre, NDTV, (May. 24, 2020, 12:32 AM), https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/coronavirus-lockdown-union-home-ministry-says-4-crore-migrant-workers-in-india-75-lakh-returned-home-so-far-2234108.  Id.  Anita Joshua, This Centre is a collection centre, THE TELEGRAPH, (May. 5, 2020, 4:30 AM), https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/migrant-fiasco-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-part-ii-unfolds/cid/1770424.  Id.  supra note 37.  MC Mehta v. Union of India, (2005) 10 SCC 217.
1. Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi, (1981) AIR 784
2. Prabhjote Gill, A sobbing child migrant worker stranded in Delhi without shelter, job and a way back home — is only one among lakhs of his peers, BUSINESS INSIDER INDIA, Mar. 26, 2020.
3. M Nagraj v. Union of India, 8. SCC 212 (2006).
4. Kaushal Shroff, “We are deserted”: Migrant workers forced to walk hundreds of kilometres due to lockdown, THE CARAVAN, Mar. 26, 2020.
5. Sahil Joshi, Lockdown 2.0: From Bandra to Surat, migrant crisis across India makes coronavirus fight tougher, INDIA TODAY, (Apr. 14, 2020 12:26 AM), https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/india-coronavirus-lockdown-migrant-crisis-bandra-mumbra-ahmedabad-surat-hyderabad-1666968-2020-04-14.
6. Railways resume passenger train services – All you need to know about IRCTC ticket bookings and precautions, ETNOWNEWS.COM (May. 12, 2020, 12:28 PM), https://www.timesnownews.com/business-economy/industry/article/railways-resume-passenger-train-services-all-you-need-to-know-about-irctc-ticket-bookings-and-precautions/590619.
7. 4 Crore Migrant Workers In India, 75 Lakh Returned Home So Far: Centre, NDTV, (May. 24, 2020, 12:32 AM), https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/coronavirus-lockdown-union-home-ministry-says-4-crore-migrant-workers-in-india-75-lakh-returned-home-so-far-2234108.
8. Anita Joshua, This Centre is a collection centre, THE TELEGRAPH, (May. 5, 2020, 4:30 AM), https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/migrant-fiasco-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-part-ii-unfolds/cid/1770424.
9. MC Mehta v. Union of India, (2005) 10 SCC 217.
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