Migrant workers play a very vital role in building the nation and their rights cannot be ignored at all, the Supreme Court said on Thursday while asking the Centre to devise a mechanism so that they receive food grains without ration cards.
The top court also observed that citizens are dying due to hunger despite our development and modalities should be set out to ensure that maximum migrant workers are given rations.
The apex court said the welfare schemes devised by the Centre should reach a maximum number of workers and the state governments will have to cooperate and assist the Union of India.
"As far as our country is concerned, two people are very important. First is the farmer i.e the agriculturist and the second is migrant workers. Migrants also play a very important role in building the nation. Their rights cannot be ignored at all.
"Therefore you have to reach them. They may be illiterate and may not know how to avail benefits of government schemes. Concerned states will have to ensure benefits of the scheme reaches them," a bench of Justices M R Shah and B V Nagarathna said.
"The Food and civil services department in each state must have a target of how many ration cards they are going to register. This has to be worked locally as each state will have its own criteria. There must be a fixed criterion.
"Ultimately, the aim is that no citizen should die of hunger in India. Unfortunately, this (starvation deaths) is happening despite our development, citizens are dying of hunger and lack of food. In villages, they tie their stomach tightly so that they do not feel hungry. I know it. They tie their stomachs with a sari or some other cloth and drink water and sleep. Children and elders do it because they cannot afford food," Justice B V Nagarathna orally observed.
Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Central Government, informed the bench that approximately 27.95 crore unorganised labourers or migrant workers have been registered as on July 11 on a portal developed in consultation with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) based on the information given by states.
Elaborating on the steps taken by the Centre, Bhati told the apex court that an e-Shram portal has been launched aimed to help people like migrant workers, construction workers, etc.
She said that a National Career Service portal has been created which is a one-stop solution that provides a wide array of employment and career-related services to the citizens of India.
The ASG also apprised the court that the Government of India has introduced a pension scheme for unorganised workers namely Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan (PM-SYM) to ensure old age protection for unorganised workers.
Bhati submitted that additional allocation of foodgrains as demanded by states is being looked into and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana has been extended till September.
She said additional grains can be procured by states at the Food Corporation of India.
At this point, advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for three activists, Anjali Bharadwaj, Harsh Mander, and Jagdeep Chhokar, alleged that the Centre is asking states to buy ration at market rates.
Bhushan said the majority of the workers are deprived of rations despite being registered on the portal as they don't have ration cards.
"NFSA covers up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and priority households. However, this number is based on the census of 2011. There has been a 15 per cent increase in the population eligible for ration cards and they are deprived," Bhushan said.
The top court took note of the submission and asked if poor people can be deprived of rations just because the census has not been carried out.
"You (Centre) are going by 2011 data and that may be an injustice to the needy people and you should look into it. You should consider them as your own brothers and sisters. You will give the ration to those who have ration cards, what about those who are registered but don't have ration cards?
"You have to think it over and come up with a solution so that maximum workers are benefitted. You have to fix the criteria and introspect on this. All efforts should be made by the state governments so that migrants have ration cards. we cannot shut our eyes," the bench said.
The top court said it will pass some orders on the matter and hear the case after two weeks.
The apex court in April had sought compliance reports within four weeks from the Centre and state governments on what actions have been taken to comply with its June 2021 order to provide food and social security to migrant workers.
The top court had issued a slew of directions to authorities on a plea of three activists seeking welfare measures for migrant workers and ordered states and Union Territories (UTs) to frame schemes for providing free dry rations to them till the pandemic lasts, while the Centre will have to allocate additional foodgrains.
It also directed states and UTs to register all establishments and license all contractors under the law and ensure that the statutory duty imposed on the contractors to give particulars of migrant workers is fully complied with.