CASE NOTE: Writ Petition in Supreme Court of India – Migrant workers’ troubles during Covid-19 lockdowns – Fake news of extension – Disaster Management Act, 2005 – Indian Penal Code, 1860 – Court entrusted Police and other Public authorities to comply with Government’s directives – Media to maintain a strong sense of responsibility – keep in check circulation of unverified news – anxiety, and fear of migrant workers to be kept in mind by Police and other Public Authorities.
By: Rajrishi Ramaswamy, Second Year B.B.A LLB, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.
Sharad Arvind Bobde, CJI
L. Nageshwar Rao, J.
Respondents: Mr. Tushar Mehta, SG, and Mr. B.V. Balram Das, AOR
Background of case
On March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the Coronavirus to be a pandemic. As a result, a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India to prevent the spread of the virus.
Subsequently, a (false) message was circulated on social media platforms including WhatsApp which claimed that the lockdown would be extended by another three weeks. As a result, migrant workers all across India attempted to return to their home towns or villages. Unable to avail the necessary facilities for the same, about thousands of workers decided to walk their way back home. As a result, some of the workers faced many difficulties and some of them even lost their lives.
The writ petition in the immediate case was filed by Advocates practising in the Supreme Court, bringing the Court’s notice to the woe of the migrant workers. The petitioners prayed that the Court issue directives to necessary authorities to alleviate the migrant workers’ concerns.
Migrant workers facing difficulties due to the circulation of fake messages on lockdowns imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Judgment of the Court
The Court’s Order began with an acknowledgement of the issues faced by the migrant workers in India post imposition of lockdown. The Court reviewed the status report submitted by Solicitor General of India, Mr. Tushar Mehtha, which contained details on:
- Various steps were taken by the Centre with regards to migrant workers’ wellbeing.
- Early response by the Government of India.
- Expert group constituted under Chairmanship of Vinod Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, and consisting of experts include medical field experts and public health experts.
- Providing basic amenities including food, water, etc. being provided to lower-strata members of society.
- Schemes including a 1.70 Crore package under Pradhaan Mantri Graam Kalyaan Yojna.
The Court then commented upon the swift reaction of the State Governments and that it was satisfied by the measures taken by the Government of India in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. The Court observed that a circular the Ministry of Home Affairs issued on 29th March, 2020 has been implemented across the nation. It also considered the respondents’ claim that the mass migration of workers had subdued and that they had been sent to relief camps or shelter homes set at various points in States and Union Territories. The Court also observed that directions issued by the Central Government and State Governments to District Collectors/Magistrates were being complied with.
Coming to the issue at hand, the Court recalled a statement issued by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which read “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”. The Court then enlisted provisions of two legislations, which penalize perpetrators spreading false information. These include:
- Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, which reads “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to the disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine”.
- Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which reads as per which any person who disobeys an order promulgated by a public servant requiring him to do or abstain from doing something is punishable to imprisonment which may extend to one month or a fine which may extend to two hundred Rupees or both. If such disobedience causes danger to human life or leads to riots, then he will be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year, and a fine which may extend to a thousand Rupees or both.
The Court entrusted State Governments, Public Authorities, and Citizens to comply with directives issued by the Government of India. Speaking on Media’s role, it said
“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.”
The Court further instructed the Central Government to consider the mental health of citizens and calm down people who are in a state of panic.
The Court finally held that “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 humanely. 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”.