The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, condemned the Centre’s failure to initiate a National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) by July 31, terming it as “unpardonable”. The SC ordered all states and union territories (UTs) to implement the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ reform, allowing migrant labourers to get ration benefits and welfare for COVID-19 distress in any part of the country irrespective of where their ration cards are registered.
Following a petition by activists seeking welfare measures for migrant workers, the top court issued directions ordering the states and UTs to frame schemes for providing migrant workers with free rations while the Centre distributes additional food grain. Among the reasons for the verdict were delays in the development of software that would identify unorganised workers in order to create a national database.
What is the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ reform?
‘One Nation One Ration Card’ is a scheme implemented by the Government of India to allow national portability of ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). In simple terms, the scheme allows migrant workers to claim rations wherever they work, regardless of where their ration cards are registered.
The Bench consisted of Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice M.R. Shah, who said that the scheme is an “important citizen-centric reform”. As the Times of India reported, according to the Supreme Court, inaction and indifference of the Ministry of Labour and Employment are neither accomplishable nor excusable, especially while unorganised workers wait for registration and to benefit from the various welfare schemes offered by the states and the centre.
“When unorganised workers are waiting to reap the benefit of various welfare schemes of the states and Centre, the apathy and lackadaisical attitude by the Ministry of Labour and Employment is unpardonable,” said the Bench. Generally, under its implementation, rations are available to beneficiaries of the NFSA and other welfare programs, including migrant workers and their families at any Fair Price Shop across the country, as the Bench further stated.
“We, thus, are of the view that those States who have not yet implemented One Nation One Ration Card scheme should implement the same. We direct the States who have not implemented the One Nation One Ration Card scheme to implement the scheme by not later than July 31, 2021,” ordered the court.
The top court referred to its order of August 21, 2018, that directed the labour ministry to make available to states and UTs a module for the registration of “unorganised workers” and expressed displeasure over the position taken by the centre.
“The attitude of the Ministry of Labour and Employment in not completing the module even though directed as early as on August 21, 2018, shows that Ministry is not alive to the concern of the migrant workers and the non-action of the Ministry is strongly disapproved,” the order stated.
Accordingly, the centre is supposed to make sure that the NDUW portal is finalised and its implementation begins by July 31 or earlier. The court also requested a compliance report within a month. The Department of Food and Public Distribution was also charged with allocating and distributing food grains according to the demands of the states for the provision of dry food grains to migrant workers.
The apex court noted in its 80-page judgment, “The Right to Life as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution gives the right to every human being to live a life of dignity with access to at least bare necessities of life. To provide food security to impoverished persons is the bounden duty of all states and Governments.
State and UT authorities were further asked to register all establishments and license all contractors under the Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act, 1979) and ensure that statutory requirements imposed on contractors to provide information about migrant workers were properly observed.
“Both, in the first and the second wave of the pandemic, migrant workers had been exposed to financial and other forms of hardships due to their limited access and claim to the welfare resources offered by the States/Union Territories. The migrant labourers are particularly vulnerable to the economic regression,” said the court.
The directions came as part of the verdict in an already pending case brought by the court suo moto relating to the welfare of migrant workers during the lockdown due to COVID-19. The Bench observed that all governments should take special care of the welfare of migrant workers/labourers when they make up more than one-fourth of the country’s population. The Supreme Court had ruled in March that states and union territories should provide dry rations and run community kitchens for migrant labourers who are stranded as a result of COVID and lockdowns. The Bench had also instructed the centre and states to finish the registration process of unorganised workers and migrants so that they could benefit from various statutory welfare schemes. May 2020 was the first time the top court addressed the problems of migrant workers during the national lockdown.