During World War II, when there was havoc on London by the German air force, the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, when briefed on the casualties and its effect on the economy, had asked, “Are the Courts functioning?” When he got to know that the court was still operating and justice was being dispensed by the judges, he replied, “Thank God. If the courts are working, nothing can go wrong.”
The Parliament and the judiciary are the two most powerful organs of our nation. The COVID–19 pandemic which has brought agony to migrant labours. The widespread pandemic has resulted in an economic recession along with a setback to the educational sector. Both these organs have failed to protect their citizens against this crisis. The most egregious aspect of the country’s response to the pandemic was its inability to protect its most vulnerable section. The attitude of the ruling class towards them has been one of utter apathy, bordering on contempt.
The workers, the poor, the labourers all are just left to fend for themselves during this time. There have been serious violations of Fundamental and legal rights. Yet, no questions have been raised by the judiciary. The Parliament and the judiciary choose to remain silent while the nation bleeds.
Problems faced by Migrant Workers
The most acute problem is being faced by the migrant labourers as they have no work. They also have no access to essential necessities and also no place to go. Every day we get to know about their grievances. Some have travelled hundreds of kilometres on foot or cycle in the scorching heat without any protective gear. And, the saddest part is the apathy shown to them by the institutions designed to protect them.
The Supreme Court has also failed to acknowledge the fundamental rights of the migrant labourers.
When the Constitution of India was being drafted, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee was asked to prepare a note on Fundamental Rights. In a terse document, he had stated that Fundamental Rights must ‘eliminate the possibility of the more powerful having the power to impose arbitrary restraints on the less powerful by withdrawing from the control he has over the economic life of the people.’
India has decided to slowly lift up its lockdown under the compulsion of reviving its economy. However, labour rights seem to be disappearing at an astonishing pace.
In a plea for payment of minimum wages to the labourers, the Supreme Court disposed of it by saying, “If they are being provided with meals, why do they need money.”
This pandemic seems to have opened a possibility to the Government to fulfil its long term agenda. That is, of diluting labour laws. Also, the timing of these changes is impeccable as there can be no protests due to lockdown. No strikes are also possible because production days were lost anyway.
Shortcomings of Courts during the lockdown
In this period of lockdown, more and more evidence of grave violations of citizens and especially of vulnerable populations is coming into the light but the Courts, especially the Supreme Court instead of taking on petitions and questioning the situation has decided to remain a mute spectator and refused to admit these petitions and adjourned them. By not granting any relief, the Supreme Court is taking away the most essential fundamental right of access to justice, ensured under the Constitution.
One is struck immediately by the lack of compassion or judicial sensitivity in handling this situation.
This period saw a drop in crime rate, however, there was a varying surge in the cases of domestic violence. This was mainly because the men were stuck at home due to lockdown. They were frustrated due to the fear of losing their job. The victim of this frustration was the women of their house.
The Supreme Court diverted its attention from such a sensitive topic too. They provided the women with no remedies except those already given in IPC.
However, the month of June brought out a pleasant change. Even though the move of the Supreme Court on migrant workers was belated it was still welcomed. The Court took suo moto cognisance of the problems and miseries of the workers stranded in different parts of the country. Adequate transportation, food and shelter are to be immediately provided by the Central and the State governments free of cost.
However, it did acknowledge that the Government of India has taken measures yet there had been inadequacies and lapses. The court sought information on measures and steps taken by the Government.
The apex court may also lay down guidelines for planning and establishment of a mechanism to address the humanitarian consequences of all actions. A national tragedy like this deserves a more statesmanlike response than being provided to it right now.