From the Viewsroom

Holding court on migrants

| Updated on May 20, 2020

Should the Supreme Court have taken a more activist stance?

The Supreme Court seems to have made up its judicial mind on what the courts should be doing on the subject of millions of migrant workers trekking to their villages in the blistering May heat. It has said, “It is impossible for this court to monitor who is walking and not walking.” The court was responding to a petition asking that the Centre be ordered to provide the migrants with water and food.

On March 31, when another cluster of petitions came before it, the Supreme Court was deflected from taking action by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who assured the court there were no migrants walking homeward. “The Home Secretary is saying that as of 11am this morning, nobody is on the road,” said Mehta. He assured the court all migrants, wherever they were, had been taken to the nearest shelters. This was such a staggeringly false statement it might qualify for censure from the court.

It isn’t often the High Courts take a different line from the Supreme Court, which is the ultimate judicial arbiter. But several have pushed their powers to the limits. The Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered food and water be provided and the Karnataka High Court said the government should pay some migrants’ fares. The Madras High Court was unreserved in its sympathies for the migrants. “One cannot control his/her tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers… It is nothing but a human tragedy,” said the court.

Judicial purists, who insist courts should not interfere in administrative issues, will blanch at the orders from these High Courts. But the fact is Indian courts have over the years arrogated to themselves greater powers. Judicial activism is implicit in the PIL system which has its own special place in India’s legal system. Keeping that in mind, should the Supreme Court take a more activist stance on the migrant workers’ plight? Certainly, it should subject the government’s legal representatives to more rigorous questioning and at least a threat of intervention would also not be out of place.

Paran Balakrishnan Editorial Consultant

Published on May 20, 2020

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