RITIKA JAIN

Tushar Mehta, India’s solicitor general, wrongly told the Supreme Court migrant-worker deaths were “isolated incidents”, that were medically screened and fed adequately on trains. He also quoted a fake WhatsApp forward. Our analysis of his affidavit and statements

New Delhi: India’s Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta on 28 May 2020 made at least six claims before the Supreme Court that were not true, according to our review of what he said in court and a “preliminary report” filed by his office.

During the virtual hearing, Mehta wrongly told the Supreme Court that the migrant-worker deaths were “isolated incidents”, that migrants were “not required to pay train fares”, that they were medically screened and that they were fed adequately on trains. He also quoted a fake WhatsApp forward in the course of the hearing, accusing the media and civil-rights workers of being “armchair intellectuals” and “prophets of doom” who “always spread negativity, negativity and negativity”.

The Supreme Court had, until 28 May, accepted the government’s word on the migrant exodus.

On 15 May, a three-judge bench had said: “There are people walking and not stopping. How can we stop it?”

On 31 March, Mehta had told the Supreme Court that “at 11 a.m. today, there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages”. At the time, a two-judge bench led by Chief Justice S A Bobde said it was satisfied with the Centre’s actions and agreed that the migrant exodus was “panic created by fake news”.

Two months after the lockdown was imposed on 25 March, the Supreme Court acknowledged the “problems and miseries” of migrants “stranded” nationwide.

India’s top court was nudged into action after criticism from former colleagues (here, herehere and here), who alleged “abdication” of duties, and senior advocates who pointed to “deference shown” to the “government’s bland assertions” on the migrant crisis.

The Supreme Court’s rationale that it did not “plan to supplant the wisdom of the Government with our wisdom” and its “how-can-we-stop-them-from-walking?” comment were also in contrast to directives on relief to migrants by 19 state high courts, who Mehta accused of “running a parallel government”.

Our analysis of Mehta’s statements and his report to the Supreme Court.

Claim 1: Death and misery of migrants as the media depict “are few unfortunate and regrettable instances” but “isolated in nature”.

Fact: At least 742 migrants had died due to circumstances related to the lockdown and not the Coronavirus by 31 May 2020, according to a public database. On 30 May, the Railway Protection Force said 80 migrants had died on trains carrying them home.

The public database, run by volunteers, keeps a tally of deaths not related to Covid19. Deaths were attributed to starvation and financial distress (132), exhaustion (46), accidents during migration (209), lack of medical care (59), suicides (126), police brutality (12), crimes that are not communal (17), alcohol-withdrawal (50) and unclassified (66).

On 29 May, for instance, the body of a migrant was found in a toilet four days after he boarded the train bound for Gorakhpur in Bihar.

Several news reports (here, here, here, here and here) have chronicled a mass migrant exodus from India’s cities, sparking a humanitarian crisis that is not “isolated”, as Mehta suggested.

Claim 2: “The migrant workers are not required to pay the train fares”

Fact: Migrants paid for tickets before the Centre on 4 May 2020 changed its mind after state units of opposition parties offered to buy the tickets.

Mehta told the Supreme Court that states were paying for trains.

Migrants were asked to pay for their tickets when the shramik or “labourer” trains began services on 1 May 2020. Four days later, after criticism and opposition parties, particularly the Congress, offered to pick up the tab, the Centre announced the railways would foot 85% of the bill and the states 15%.

Even so, while many migrants did get free tickets, there were many others who either paid or were fleeced by touts.

For instance, Ravi Maurya, a 25-year-old migrant worker at a manufacturing unit in Kalyan, Maharashtra, decided to walk 1,289 km home to Mahuli in Uttar Pradesh because he had run out of money. He earned a daily wage of Rs. 490, half of which he sent home, before losing his job.

Maurya started out on 14 April 2020, but was detained when he reached Nashik, Maharashtra, four days later.

“I spent two weeks in a quarantine facility in Nashik before I and a few others found out that a Lucknow-bound train was going to leave on 2 May 2020,” Maurya told Article 14. “The ticket fare was Rs 500, but since we didn’t have enough, we pooled all we had and haggled to get the price down to Rs 340 each.”

Another migrant worker called Raju Kumar also paid over Rs 900 to travel from Surat to Muzaffarpur in Bihar on 21 May. Another, Pradeep on 15 May, paid Rs 850 to travel from Bangalore to Bihar.

Claim 3: “Once the migrant worker boards the trains, food and water arrangements are made free of cost”

Fact: Migrants have died of causes related to a lack of food and water. By Mehta’s own data, there is inadequate food on the shramik trains.

Mehta told the Supreme court that state governments provided the “first meal while boarding”, and once the journey began, “the Railways provides food as well as drinking water more than once, as required, depending upon the length of journey”.

He said the railways have “served 84 Lakh (8.4 million) meals and over 1.5 Cr (15 million) Packaged Drinking Water Bottles (Rail Neer)”.

Using that data, the railways have provided 5.4 million (50 lakh) passengers with 8.4 million (84 lakh) meals, which is 1.5 meals per passenger. By the government’s own admission, the trains are making long-distance journeys, meaning at least one day to several and “that as far as neighbouring States are concerned, the migrant workers are moved through buses considering the short distances”.

Videos of migrants on shramik trains looting packets of food in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh revealed food shortages on trains. Other videos of starved migrants looting food and throwing out inedible food served are here, here and here.

A 58-year-old called Sayan Kumar Singh died aboard a shramik train because “he did not have water to take his medicine,” Scroll reported a factory worker on that train as saying. A four-year-boy died at Muzzafarpur station as his father searched for milk en route to their home in West Champaran.

Claim 4: Migrant workers who board shramik Trains are already screened by “qualified physician” and they “carry a certificate to that effect”. 

Fact: The government’s medical screening before boarding is a simple temperature check. Some states simply spray disinfectants on migrants when they reach home.

Migrant workers are screened by physicians before they reach the railway station, Mehta said. “They carry a certificate to that effect, with a view to ensure that, so far as possible, the infection does not travel from urban to the rural areas”. The migrants are once again screened when they disembark at their final point.

On 7 May, Maharashtra removed the provision that required a migrant to obtain a fitness certificate before travelling. A thermal screening and simple check for any influenza-like symptoms would be done at the stations before migrants board their trains, the Maharashtra government said.

In the national capital, paramilitary manning the Old Delhi railway station directed Ganesh Paswan, a migrant who worked in the villages around Gurugram, Haryana, to get a medical certificate, hours before he was scheduled to board the train. With hours to spare, Paswan made a mad 10 kilometer dash to Gokulpuri in northeast Delhi and got a certificate. A similar certificate another migrant displayed simply said he was “fit to travel”.

“Only my temperature was taken,” said Paswan of the check that led to the medical certificate. “What will the temperature tell you? Someone told me that they will take blood, but mine wasn’t taken.”

The authorities told Paswan he would need to quarantine himself for four-five days since he was coming from a green zone, an area that has not registered any coronavirus cases for at least 21 days. “But now, I have to complete 14 days of institutional quarantine,”, Paswan said, speaking from a government facility in Lakhisarai, Bihar.

News reports (here, here, here, and here) refer to migrants being sprayed with disinfectant once they reached their home states by train.

Claim 5: “Social distancing in accordance with the guidelines issued” by the Home Ministry was followed on shramik trains, which are “sanitized as per Health Ministry’s protocol before and after every journey”. 

Fact: Migrants said coaches carried at least 70-80, which is almost at capacity or more,  with limited or no social distancing.

Since 1 May, 3,700 trains have ferried 5 million migrants, or 1,351 people per train. An additional 4.1 million were sent by road (in buses) in “short” journeys to neighboring states.

“There was no place to sit, how can we even think of sleeping,” Dharmendra Pandit, who travelled from Dadri, Uttar Pradesh to Patna, Bihar, on a shramik train on 27 May told Article 14.

The Railway ministry was reported to have said that each shramik train had 24 coaches, with 54 seats occupied instead of the 72 normally allowed. It said almost 1200 (later upgraded to 1700) migrants were allowed in each coach.

Millions more continue to be stranded.

The Bench asked Mehta how much time the government would need to “to shift the migrants to where they want to go?” It asked whether the Centre had a “monitoring mechanism to ensure food and basic necessities are taken care of”. The court observed, “Hard reality is that it’s [a mechanism to tackle the migrant crisis] not there. Looking at number of #migrants some further steps need to be taken,” it said, to which Mehta said a more comprehensive report would be duly filed.

Claim 6: Pulitzer prize winning photographer, likened to a vulture, committed suicide after his photo of vulture and starving child in Sudan in 1983.

Fact: In trying to compare Indian media, civil-rights workers to metaphorical vultures, Mehta quoted a fake WhatsApp forward.

Mehta quoted a fake WhatsApp forward, as Altnews.in reported, about South African Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter and his 1993 photograph of a vulture watching a starving girl. He said those with cameras were the second metaphorical vulture, circling migrants whom he compared to the little girl.

Mehta falsely implied that Carter walked away after taking the photograph and that the photographer committed suicide four months after taking the picture in 1983.

Carter, as Time magazine reported, waited for 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings, but when it did not, the photographer shooed it away and saw the girl, who turned out to be a boy, get up and walk away. Carter died by suicide 16 months later, in 1994.

Mehta falsely attributed Carter’s suicide to guilt of not doing anything for the starving child.

“The suicide note he (Carter) left behind is a litany of nightmares and dark visions, a clutching attempt at autobiography, self-analysis, explanation, excuse,” Time reported. “After coming home from New York, he wrote, he was ‘depressed’ . . . without phone . . . money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . . money!!! . . . I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . .’.”

Courtesy Article 14