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India Rule of Law

Analysis: SC order on plight of migrants and related media reportage

Government attempts to muzzle the media in wake of heart-rending images of migrants walking back home

Sabrangindia 03 Apr 2020

Covid 19Image Courtesy: Lawnn.com

On March 31, 2020, while hearing a batch of writ petitions in public interest for redressal of grievances of migrant labourers in different parts of the country, the Supreme Court took note of not just the migrant crisis, but also the efforts made by the government as mentioned in a status report submitted by the center.

The center, which was the respondent in the case also tried to accuse the media of irresponsible reportage and spreading incorrect information. Here is a brief analysis of the SC order and a few questions that it now raises… questions that must now be answered by the government.

The Status Report

Here are a few excerpts from the judgment, and questions they raise:

“The respondent – Union of India has referred to various steps that were taken to prevent the spread of Corona virus [COVID 19]. Reference is made to the institutional response regarding the management of the spread of the disease scientifically at the highest level. Early steps taken by the Government of India to prevent the spread of Corona Virus have been highlighted in the Status Report. It is mentioned in the Status Report that an expert group has been constituted under Dr. Vinod Paul, Member, NITI Aayog to provide guidance for prevention of the spread of the Virus in the country. Experts from cross sections in the medical field and public health fraternity are members of the said Expert Committee.

Various other measures taken by the Central Government in dealing with the needs of the lower strata of the society by providing basic amenities viz., food, clean drinking water, medicines, etc. have been dealt with in the status report.

Apart from the announcement of the relief package totaling Rs.1.70 lakh crore under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the Status Report refers to other schemes which were formulated to ensure that the persons in need are taken care of.”

“We are informed that the labourers who are unemployed due to lock down were apprehensive about their survival. Panic was created by some fake news that the lock down would last for more than three months.”

Sabrang says: Was it the alleged fake news that led to this mass migration or was it the sudden announcement the Prime Minister at 8 PM on Monday, March 24 that a nationwide lockdown would come into effect starting midnight that caused panic among people?

There were reports of panic buying in shops at Delhi, Mumbai and all metros that gave a complete go by to the “public distancing” need caused by the pandemic.

Didn’t this speech which failed to address not just questions about availability of essentials, but also availability of social security measures for the poor and the marginalized, also make migrants who have meagre savings question their chances of survival in wake of sudden unemployment, potential homelessness and possibility of starvation?

Transportation of migrants

“The initial reaction of the State Governments and the Union Territories was to transport migrant labourers from their borders to their villages.”

Sabrang asks: Where was the said transportation in the initial days? If it had been available immediately, migrants wouldn’t have been forced to travel on foot. Many of them walked as seen in media reports, with all their belongings on their back, with scant water and food, in an utterly inhuman fashion down completely vacant railway tracks!

“Later, on 29.03.2020 the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a Circular prohibiting movement as transportation of migrant labourers in overcrowded buses would cause more damage than help to the migrant labourers. The very idea of lock down was to ensure that the virus would not spread. It was felt that transportation of migrant labourers would aggravate the problem of spread of the Virus. In such view, the movement of migrant labourers was prohibited and a direction was given to the State Governments to stop the migrant labourers wherever they were and shift them to nearby shelter homes/relief camps. A further direction was issued to the District Collectors/Magistrates to ensure that medical tests were done and the migrant labourers be provided with basic amenities like food, clean drinking water, medicines, etc. in the shelter homes.”

Sabrang asks: Why were these directives issued by the MHA six days after the original lockdown announcement and not simultaneously, so that people could have been assured of government efforts to help them? In the initial days all transportation including trucks, buses and trains had come to a grinding halt. The overcrowding occurred when the state governments announced bus services to take migrants to their villages and the migrants gathered at the bus stations.

Relief camps for migrants

“During the course of hearing, the Solicitor General of India made a statement that the information received by the Control Room today at 2.30 A.M. showed that 21,064 relief camps have been set up by various State Governments/Union Territories where the migrant labourers have been shifted and they are being provided with basic amenities like food, medicines, drinking water, etc. According to the Status Report, 6,66,291 persons have been provided shelters and 22,88,279 persons have been provided food.”

Sabrang asks: Is the media only expected to quote from press statements, and not supposed to do a reality check on whether top down diktats of the Govt are actually resulting in actions on the ground? Will it be held against us if we check if the 21,064 camps are fully functional and complying with all hygiene measures? Will it be held against the media if they report on how in some of these shelters, food and rations have only just started trickling in i.e on April 1 and 2, 2020.

No one on the road

“The Solicitor General of India made a statement on instructions that at 11 A.M. today, there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages. Advisories issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 27.03.2020 and 28.03.2020 have also been mentioned in the Status Report, according to which a direction was given by the Ministry of Home Affairs, to the State Governments/Union Territories to provide adequate facilities for migrant labourers.”

Sabrang says: Here for the first time SC refers to “no person walking on the roads” …and again an advisory is quoted. World over and especially in societies that are segregated through privilege and caste, what the governments ‘order’ or ‘direct’ does not often flow through on the ground.

Here what has happened is this: The sudden lockdown, in fact, broke irrevocably the supply chain of wholesale grains into markets then into retail shops. The lockdown had left truck drivers stuck; their vehicles immobile. Let us also not forget that there was also panic buying and hoarding. Stocks are running low from large wholesalers to small corner-stores.

 Couriers and post office staff are scared. Even the banks, despite coming under essential services, are functioning with limited staff, many of whom face challenges while traveling to and from work.

 Why was no thought was given at all to the easy movement that should have been assured to the those manning essential services before the lockdown was announced? Maharashtra was sort of heading for a step by step approach: first directing only 50 per cent employees be at office, then 25 per cent. In the midst of this came the ‘dramatic’ Janata Curfew and then the nationwide lockdown, throwing disaster planning for a six!

Premature validation from the SC?

“The National Disaster Management Authority has also issued an advisory on 28.03.2020 suggesting various measures to be taken by the State and District Emergency Operation Centres. One of the issues highlighted in the said advisory is that the police and the other administrative authorities have to adopt a humane approach in dealing with migrant workers and stranded tourists……”

“The Status Report refers to an advisory given by the Government of India on 24.03.2020 to the authorities to effectively deal with rumour mongering.”

“While informing this Court about the steps taken by the Government of India to ensure that the migrant labourers are being shifted to nearby shelters/relief camps from place they were found to be walking and basic amenities being provided to them, the Union of India has sought a direction from this Court to the State Governments and the Union Territories to implement the directions issued by the Central Government. A further direction was sought to prevent fake and inaccurate reporting whether intended or not, either by electronic print or social medial which will cause panic in the society.”

“Having considered the submissions made by the petitioners-in-person and the learned Solicitor General of India and upon perusal of the Status Report filed on behalf of the respondent – Union of India, we are satisfied with the steps taken by the Union of India for preventing the spread of Corona Virus [COVID 19] at this stage.”

Sabrang asks: The Supreme Court was not expected to give any certificate to the Central government. Why was such validation offered at such a nascent stage?

Punitive sections of the law

“The migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down would continue for more than three months. Such panic driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news. In fact, some have lost their lives in the

process. It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media.

Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic. Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.

Disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant would result in punishment under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. An advisory which is in the nature of an order made by the public authority attracts section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

We trust and expect that all concerned viz., State Governments, Public Authorities and Citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety.”

Sabrang says: Don’t such criminal sections of the law actually arm the State with more powers than it already has, and in fact isn’t the State now geared to snuff out any robust examination of government’s response to schemes at the time of the pandemic?

 The same para asks Governments (presumably state governments), Public Authorities and Citizens to “comply with the advisories and directive s of the Union of India in letter and spirit and in interests of public safety”. What of the federal principles enshrined in the Constitution; the Concurrent List that places law and order firmly under the state governments?

Advisory for press and media

“In particular, we expect the Media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”

Sabrang says: Why are senior government officials not taking robust questions from the citizenry on concerns of health, accessibility of essential services, how banks and post offices are functioning?

 Ordinarily it is the media’s responsibility to not only report what is said in press briefings, or Union Govt and state govt advisories, but also stories from the ground that either show these are working on the ground or not. Article 19 gives the media those powers. The Supreme Court has already held that “reasonable restrictions” on free speech are Constitutional.

 Why is this government that has vast communication skills and reserves and devotes disproportionate space time and attention to social media, so rattled by a series of images and stories of long lines of our construction workers, kedias, migrant workers and other working in the unorganized sector walking home? Many of these workers were on the road from March 25 to at least March 29.

Concerns about mental health

“It is well known that panic can severely affect mental health. We are informed that the Union of India is conscious of the importance of mental health and the need to calm down those who are in a state of panic.”

“The anxiety and fear of the migrants should be understood by the Police and other authorities. As directed by the Union of India, they should deal with the migrants in a humane manner. Considering the situation, we are of the opinion that the State Governments/Union Territories should endeavour to engage volunteers along with the police to supervise the welfare activities of the migrants. We expect those concerned to appreciate the trepidation of the poor men, women and children and treat them with kindness.”

Sabrang says: It is the Union of India and MHA that appears to have limited empathy for migrant workers who are not only a vital link in the supply chain of all agricultural and other essential goods, they are also the backbone of the economy. They appear to have become rattled after images of the ordeal of these migrant workers began appearing on some twitter threads and a few regional and national newspapers. It is also noteworthy that visuals of migrant workers being sprayed with chemicals come from Uttar Pradesh, where the state government belongs to the same party that rules India from Delhi.

Possibility of censorship?

“In particular, we expect the media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments”.

Sabrang says: But reading between the lines, the court’s order might be interpreted by the Centre as giving sanction for prior censorship of content in the media. This is because the court expressed its trust and expectation that all concerned, namely, state governments, public authorities, and citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the Centre in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety.

 The court drew attention to Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.  Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.

It also underlined Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which imposes punishment for disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant. “An advisory which is in the nature of an order made by the public authority attracts section 188 of the Indian Penal Code”, the bench made it clear.  All these, however, should not make the Centre assume that it could direct prior censorship of content in the media under these provisions.

The entire judgment may be read here:

Analysis: SC order on plight of migrants and related media reportage

Government attempts to muzzle the media in wake of heart-rending images of migrants walking back home

Covid 19Image Courtesy: Lawnn.com

On March 31, 2020, while hearing a batch of writ petitions in public interest for redressal of grievances of migrant labourers in different parts of the country, the Supreme Court took note of not just the migrant crisis, but also the efforts made by the government as mentioned in a status report submitted by the center.

The center, which was the respondent in the case also tried to accuse the media of irresponsible reportage and spreading incorrect information. Here is a brief analysis of the SC order and a few questions that it now raises… questions that must now be answered by the government.

The Status Report

Here are a few excerpts from the judgment, and questions they raise:

“The respondent – Union of India has referred to various steps that were taken to prevent the spread of Corona virus [COVID 19]. Reference is made to the institutional response regarding the management of the spread of the disease scientifically at the highest level. Early steps taken by the Government of India to prevent the spread of Corona Virus have been highlighted in the Status Report. It is mentioned in the Status Report that an expert group has been constituted under Dr. Vinod Paul, Member, NITI Aayog to provide guidance for prevention of the spread of the Virus in the country. Experts from cross sections in the medical field and public health fraternity are members of the said Expert Committee.

Various other measures taken by the Central Government in dealing with the needs of the lower strata of the society by providing basic amenities viz., food, clean drinking water, medicines, etc. have been dealt with in the status report.

Apart from the announcement of the relief package totaling Rs.1.70 lakh crore under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the Status Report refers to other schemes which were formulated to ensure that the persons in need are taken care of.”

“We are informed that the labourers who are unemployed due to lock down were apprehensive about their survival. Panic was created by some fake news that the lock down would last for more than three months.”

Sabrang says: Was it the alleged fake news that led to this mass migration or was it the sudden announcement the Prime Minister at 8 PM on Monday, March 24 that a nationwide lockdown would come into effect starting midnight that caused panic among people?

There were reports of panic buying in shops at Delhi, Mumbai and all metros that gave a complete go by to the “public distancing” need caused by the pandemic.

Didn’t this speech which failed to address not just questions about availability of essentials, but also availability of social security measures for the poor and the marginalized, also make migrants who have meagre savings question their chances of survival in wake of sudden unemployment, potential homelessness and possibility of starvation?

Transportation of migrants

“The initial reaction of the State Governments and the Union Territories was to transport migrant labourers from their borders to their villages.”

Sabrang asks: Where was the said transportation in the initial days? If it had been available immediately, migrants wouldn’t have been forced to travel on foot. Many of them walked as seen in media reports, with all their belongings on their back, with scant water and food, in an utterly inhuman fashion down completely vacant railway tracks!

“Later, on 29.03.2020 the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a Circular prohibiting movement as transportation of migrant labourers in overcrowded buses would cause more damage than help to the migrant labourers. The very idea of lock down was to ensure that the virus would not spread. It was felt that transportation of migrant labourers would aggravate the problem of spread of the Virus. In such view, the movement of migrant labourers was prohibited and a direction was given to the State Governments to stop the migrant labourers wherever they were and shift them to nearby shelter homes/relief camps. A further direction was issued to the District Collectors/Magistrates to ensure that medical tests were done and the migrant labourers be provided with basic amenities like food, clean drinking water, medicines, etc. in the shelter homes.”

Sabrang asks: Why were these directives issued by the MHA six days after the original lockdown announcement and not simultaneously, so that people could have been assured of government efforts to help them? In the initial days all transportation including trucks, buses and trains had come to a grinding halt. The overcrowding occurred when the state governments announced bus services to take migrants to their villages and the migrants gathered at the bus stations.

Relief camps for migrants

“During the course of hearing, the Solicitor General of India made a statement that the information received by the Control Room today at 2.30 A.M. showed that 21,064 relief camps have been set up by various State Governments/Union Territories where the migrant labourers have been shifted and they are being provided with basic amenities like food, medicines, drinking water, etc. According to the Status Report, 6,66,291 persons have been provided shelters and 22,88,279 persons have been provided food.”

Sabrang asks: Is the media only expected to quote from press statements, and not supposed to do a reality check on whether top down diktats of the Govt are actually resulting in actions on the ground? Will it be held against us if we check if the 21,064 camps are fully functional and complying with all hygiene measures? Will it be held against the media if they report on how in some of these shelters, food and rations have only just started trickling in i.e on April 1 and 2, 2020.

No one on the road

“The Solicitor General of India made a statement on instructions that at 11 A.M. today, there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages. Advisories issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 27.03.2020 and 28.03.2020 have also been mentioned in the Status Report, according to which a direction was given by the Ministry of Home Affairs, to the State Governments/Union Territories to provide adequate facilities for migrant labourers.”

Sabrang says: Here for the first time SC refers to “no person walking on the roads” …and again an advisory is quoted. World over and especially in societies that are segregated through privilege and caste, what the governments ‘order’ or ‘direct’ does not often flow through on the ground.

Here what has happened is this: The sudden lockdown, in fact, broke irrevocably the supply chain of wholesale grains into markets then into retail shops. The lockdown had left truck drivers stuck; their vehicles immobile. Let us also not forget that there was also panic buying and hoarding. Stocks are running low from large wholesalers to small corner-stores.

 Couriers and post office staff are scared. Even the banks, despite coming under essential services, are functioning with limited staff, many of whom face challenges while traveling to and from work.

 Why was no thought was given at all to the easy movement that should have been assured to the those manning essential services before the lockdown was announced? Maharashtra was sort of heading for a step by step approach: first directing only 50 per cent employees be at office, then 25 per cent. In the midst of this came the ‘dramatic’ Janata Curfew and then the nationwide lockdown, throwing disaster planning for a six!

Premature validation from the SC?

“The National Disaster Management Authority has also issued an advisory on 28.03.2020 suggesting various measures to be taken by the State and District Emergency Operation Centres. One of the issues highlighted in the said advisory is that the police and the other administrative authorities have to adopt a humane approach in dealing with migrant workers and stranded tourists……”

“The Status Report refers to an advisory given by the Government of India on 24.03.2020 to the authorities to effectively deal with rumour mongering.”

“While informing this Court about the steps taken by the Government of India to ensure that the migrant labourers are being shifted to nearby shelters/relief camps from place they were found to be walking and basic amenities being provided to them, the Union of India has sought a direction from this Court to the State Governments and the Union Territories to implement the directions issued by the Central Government. A further direction was sought to prevent fake and inaccurate reporting whether intended or not, either by electronic print or social medial which will cause panic in the society.”

“Having considered the submissions made by the petitioners-in-person and the learned Solicitor General of India and upon perusal of the Status Report filed on behalf of the respondent – Union of India, we are satisfied with the steps taken by the Union of India for preventing the spread of Corona Virus [COVID 19] at this stage.”

Sabrang asks: The Supreme Court was not expected to give any certificate to the Central government. Why was such validation offered at such a nascent stage?

Punitive sections of the law

“The migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down would continue for more than three months. Such panic driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news. In fact, some have lost their lives in the

process. It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media.

Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic. Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.

Disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant would result in punishment under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. An advisory which is in the nature of an order made by the public authority attracts section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

We trust and expect that all concerned viz., State Governments, Public Authorities and Citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety.”

Sabrang says: Don’t such criminal sections of the law actually arm the State with more powers than it already has, and in fact isn’t the State now geared to snuff out any robust examination of government’s response to schemes at the time of the pandemic?

 The same para asks Governments (presumably state governments), Public Authorities and Citizens to “comply with the advisories and directive s of the Union of India in letter and spirit and in interests of public safety”. What of the federal principles enshrined in the Constitution; the Concurrent List that places law and order firmly under the state governments?

Advisory for press and media

“In particular, we expect the Media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”

Sabrang says: Why are senior government officials not taking robust questions from the citizenry on concerns of health, accessibility of essential services, how banks and post offices are functioning?

 Ordinarily it is the media’s responsibility to not only report what is said in press briefings, or Union Govt and state govt advisories, but also stories from the ground that either show these are working on the ground or not. Article 19 gives the media those powers. The Supreme Court has already held that “reasonable restrictions” on free speech are Constitutional.

 Why is this government that has vast communication skills and reserves and devotes disproportionate space time and attention to social media, so rattled by a series of images and stories of long lines of our construction workers, kedias, migrant workers and other working in the unorganized sector walking home? Many of these workers were on the road from March 25 to at least March 29.

Concerns about mental health

“It is well known that panic can severely affect mental health. We are informed that the Union of India is conscious of the importance of mental health and the need to calm down those who are in a state of panic.”

“The anxiety and fear of the migrants should be understood by the Police and other authorities. As directed by the Union of India, they should deal with the migrants in a humane manner. Considering the situation, we are of the opinion that the State Governments/Union Territories should endeavour to engage volunteers along with the police to supervise the welfare activities of the migrants. We expect those concerned to appreciate the trepidation of the poor men, women and children and treat them with kindness.”

Sabrang says: It is the Union of India and MHA that appears to have limited empathy for migrant workers who are not only a vital link in the supply chain of all agricultural and other essential goods, they are also the backbone of the economy. They appear to have become rattled after images of the ordeal of these migrant workers began appearing on some twitter threads and a few regional and national newspapers. It is also noteworthy that visuals of migrant workers being sprayed with chemicals come from Uttar Pradesh, where the state government belongs to the same party that rules India from Delhi.

Possibility of censorship?

“In particular, we expect the media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments”.

Sabrang says: But reading between the lines, the court’s order might be interpreted by the Centre as giving sanction for prior censorship of content in the media. This is because the court expressed its trust and expectation that all concerned, namely, state governments, public authorities, and citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the Centre in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety.

 The court drew attention to Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.  Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.

It also underlined Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which imposes punishment for disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant. “An advisory which is in the nature of an order made by the public authority attracts section 188 of the Indian Penal Code”, the bench made it clear.  All these, however, should not make the Centre assume that it could direct prior censorship of content in the media under these provisions.

The entire judgment may be read here:

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