In 1979, Justice Bhagwati accepted a postcard as a PIL from a prisoner in Tihar jail, who had written to the Supreme court reporting an incident of torture perpetrated on a fellow prisoner. Justice Bhagwati had famously remarked that the court must "provide access to justice to large masses of people who were denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty had no meaning.” A 25-paise postcard set constitutional law in motion.

Almost four decades later, on May 16, 2020 in a horrific incident when migrant labourers sleeping on railway tracks are mowed down by a goods train due to government apathy, the same court lets out a helpless "how can we stop it?"

The ‘highest institution of Justice in India’ tells us on March 25 2020, “this fear and panic is a bigger problem than this virus.” (Albeit that was also a statement of the New York Governor Mr. Andrew Cuomo, on 19th March, 2020 while addressing the lockdown protocol during Covid-19 in New York!)

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, India is faced with an additional humanitarian crisis: unprecedented flight of migrant workers from different parts of the country to their villages. Reports from the ground have suggested desperate times. Over the last two months those worst affected during this humanitarian crisis were primarily migrant labourers divided by caste and religion, toyed by the government to contribute to its vote bank, representing almost 70% of the Indian Population, yet they remained nameless and faceless.

Extreme heat, pangs of hunger from days of walking with no food, dehydration, humiliation and with uncertainty looming over their heads they soldiered on. Over 130 migrants got killed in various road accidents during the lockdown and many others died due to lack of basic provisions in poorly organised relief camps or in-transit, separated from their families; longing for the respite promised by the Government, the respite which was deemed to be their socio-economic right by virtue of being a citizen of India, their right to be protected by the Constitution of India helmed by the Supreme Court of India- but they were FAILED.

Yet, it is reported that 937 Shramik special trains have operated to ferry over 11 lakh migrants, 37,978 relief camps have been set up by states and Union Territories, where 14.3 lakh are being sheltered. Further, nearly 1.34 crore people are being fed through 26,225 food camps, 16.5 lakh workers were provided with housing facilities by their employers.

One knows that the hallowed portals of Supreme Justice in India exhibit signs of Judicial deference to the Legislature with willingness to transfer judges unpalatable to the Executive, the manner in which the issues of Kashmir, unbridled arrests under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the anti- Citizenship Amendment Act agitations have been dealt with are examples of this. But then what can we expect when a Chief Justice of India, presides over his own hearing concerning allegations of sexual harassment?

Well, one can only expect worse, when despite the fact that millions of rupees are getting collected in the name of certain ‘care funds’ to provide relief to the migrants and needy the worst affected by Covid-19, most get spent on advertising campaigns for a the leading political party, and when questioned on what money can get transferred directly to the migrants, we are told - “You yourself know, we can’t order what you are demanding. You say there are 4 crore people. How can we order '5,000 per person? We don’t have the documents you are referring to! How can we pass directions to make any payment? If we have to pass all the directions that are there in your petition, we will have to start running the government,” (The Delhi Government had announced INR 5000 for each migrant worker on April 12th 2020) and apparently, “the government is also concerned about the migrant workers.” “The government is consulting states as to how many of them have to be transported to their states and how many have to be given help and what kind of help,” (April 27 2020)

In a series of blatant lies masquerading as the Centre's argument, the Solicitor General of India had argued before the Supreme Court on March 31 that "anyone who is outside has been taken to the available shelters" and that there is "no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home-towns". It is against this backdrop that the top court had said that it is impossible for courts to monitor the movement of migrant workers across the country. In contrast, as many as 19 High Courts of India offered some redemption to the justice system by raising concern over migrant labour walking back. This seemed to have irked the Solicitor General, as alluding to the activism shown by these courts, he remarked that, "some High Courts are running a parallel government".

When the Supreme Court, on Thursday, after more than two months, finally took suo motu cognizance of the condition of migrant labourers, the Solicitor General concluded by saying "I have something more to say as an officer of the court. I have a complaint”. “A large number of steps were taken by the government and the Supreme Court was fully satisfied about it earlier. But we have something called prophets of doom who only spread negativity, negativity, and negativity. All these people writing on social media, giving interviews, cannot even acknowledge what is being done…They are not showing any courtesy to the nation.” A slew of personal attacks followed, branding all those who had brought the plight of migrant workers before them as "vultures of doom".

The simple "complaint" reeks of apathy, insensitivity and adds insult to injury in the migrant labourers crisis which is being called "the greatest exodus since partition" in the international headlines. The least that is expected of us as humans, if not as "officers of the court", is empathy for the hundreds of migrant workers trudging unbelievable distances home on foot. As Dushyant Dave, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association has highlighted: "Can you imagine every migrant family walking on the roads and what they must be going through? What suffering they must be going through and what feelings they must be harbouring in their hearts about this nation, which has completely failed them and left them to fend for themselves?"

What is to be seen is if the submission by the Solicitor General to the SC in March and less credible arguments by him on May 29 2020, will he be held in contempt, for lowering the respect for Supreme Judiciary? The SG’s outburst draws attention to the SC’s silence. It would be unfortunate, indeed, if the SG’s unwise and mean-spirited exuberance is allowed to be seen to, in some way, or in any way, be endorsed by the highest court.

Our founding fathers had a very different vision for India, one with which the India of today-- the India in which thousands of its people are suffering in the face of an apathetic government and judiciary-- is in sharp contrast. A prominent freedom fighter had once said, “The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye.” The fourth pillar of our democracy needs to stand strong in these turbulent times-- impartial and fearless as its legacy has been-- or the very framework of our democracy may collapse.

What should have happened was Under the Disaster Management Act, a national plan should be prepared by the National Executive Committee, which was then approved by the NDMA. Section 12 of the national plan has guidelines for minimum standards of relief which the National authority has to recommend. The minimum standards include shelter, food, drinking water, medical cover and sanitation, but shockingly, till date no minimum standards have been set up for any of these categories.

As Justice Khanna had aptly remarked “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent… [the] greatest danger to liberty lies in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but lacking in due deference for the rule of law.”

Oh, by the way, also coming in from various ‘Prophets of Doom’ that the Ram Mandir construction has started in Ayodhya on May 26, 2020, with a budget rumoured to be to the tune of INR 10,000 crores. Walls of secrecy seem to be crumbling now with an RTI application getting the following response from the PMO, “the PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.” However, relevant information in respect of the fund may be seen on the website” It comes as no surprise that, no such information (please read as nil transparency!) is available on the official website. Just goes to show how much our PM Cares!

By denying the status of 'public authority' it is a big blow to transparency and not to mention our democratic values. #MoneyHeist??

Covid-19 and the Government are beyond logic! Stay home!

(Madhukar Jetley is Member Legislative Council of Uttar Pradesh)