|CITATION||AIR 1984 SC 802|
|DATE OF JUDGEMENT||16.12.1983|
|COURT||THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA|
|APPELLANT||Bandhua Mukti Morcha|
|RESPONDENT||Union of India (UOI) and Ors|
|BENCH||A.N. Sen, P.N. Bhagwati and R.S. Pathak, JJ.|
This judgement Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India is a Landmark judgement which deals with the issues of bounded labour in India. The practice of bonded labor, a deeply entrenched and oppressive system, existed in various states of India for many years, extending beyond the country’s independence. To address this grave issue, Article 23 of the Indian Constitution was enacted, which explicitly prohibited “traffic in human beings and beggar and other similar forms of forced labor.” However, despite the existence of this constitutional prohibition since January 26, 1950, little meaningful action was taken to eradicate bonded labor for several years.
It was only in 1976 that the Indian Parliament passed the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976, aimed at abolishing this system to prevent the economic and physical exploitation of vulnerable sections of society. Nevertheless, reports by various governmental bodies, such as the Center for Rural Development Administration, Indian Institute of Public Administration, and other entities, as well as seminars on bonded labor rehabilitation, revealed that the pernicious practice of bonded labor persisted in some regions.
In light of this situation, it became an imperative constitutional duty to identify and liberate bonded laborers from their conditions of bondage. This process of identifying and releasing bonded laborers was seen as a transformation from being treated as non-beings to becoming full-fledged human beings, as poignantly expressed in the words of Rabindranath Tagore in “Kadi and Komal.”
FACTS OF THE CASE
The petitioner, Bandhua Mukti Morcha, a charitable organization, conducted inspections of various stone quarries near Delhi in the Faridabad district. Their findings revealed the dire conditions of laborers hailing from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. These workers were in distress due to various issues. On February 25, 1982, the petitioner addressed a letter to Justice P. N. Bhagwati outlining these problems.
In the letter, they presented the names of workers from different states along with their statements, illustrating their vulnerable situations. The issues highlighted included bonded labor, fatal work-related injuries, respiratory diseases due to stone dust, lack of access to clean drinking water, inadequate sanitation facilities, meager wages, and the exploitation of female workers.
The petitioner requested the Supreme Court to issue a writ petition to ensure the proper enforcement of labor welfare laws, such as the Mines Act of 1952, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, the Contract Labor Act of 1970, the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act of 1976, and the Minimum Wages Act of 1948, among others.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the letter as a writ petition and issued a notice. They appointed two attorneys, Ashok Srivastava and Ashok Panda, as commissioners to visit the stone quarries mentioned in the letter and interact with the workers. The commissioners submitted their report on March 2, 1982, which revealed the following findings:
- The presence of numerous marble processing machines had created a dusty environment, making it hard for workers to breathe.
- Workers did not have access to clean drinking water and were compelled to consume dirty water from a nallah in many cases.
- Workers resided in jhuggies constructed from stacked stones and straw, and they were unable to leave the stone quarries.
- Workers were unable to seek compensation for injuries sustained during their work.
On March 5, 1982, the Court ordered that copies of Ashok Srivastava and Ashok Panda’s report be provided to all respondents to allow them to respond to the report’s findings. Furthermore, the Court appointed Dr. Patwardhan from the Indian Institute of Technology to conduct a socio-legal investigation to ascertain the extent to which state responsibilities were being met. This would enable the State Government and its officials to take necessary actions to rectify the situation.
- Whether the letter writ petition filed is maintainable under the Article 32 of Indian Constitution or not?
- Whether the petitioner has the locus standi to file the case and any fundamental right of petitioner or the workmen are infringed?
- Whether the Supreme court lacks the authority to appoint the commission for the investigation under Order XLVI of the Supreme Court Rules 1966
- Whether it is the obligation of the State government to provide pure drinking water to the workers, which is the essential matter of welfare and health of the workmen?
CONTENTIONS OF RESPONDENT
- The state Government of Haryana even took the plea that the labours are forced, not the bounded labourers.
- The State government of Haryana, the respondent in this case, argued that, the writ petition sent by letter under Article 32 of the Indian constitution is not maintainable as the petitioner or workmen’s fundamental rights were not infringed
- The State of Haryana (The Respondent) argued that the court lacks the power to appoint commissioners (Ashok Srivastava, Ashok Panda, and Dr Patwardhan) to investigate citing order XLVI of the Supreme Court Rules 1966 and produce reports without cross-examination, thereby rendering their reports without evidentiary value.
THE REASONING GIVEN BY COURTS:
Justice P.N examined each issue Bhagwati as follows:
The respondent’s locus standi defense was completely rejected by the Honorable Court. Previously, the court had ruled that only the party who had been wronged might apply to the court for relief. However, the Supreme Court ruled in S. P. Gupta v. Union of India that any member acting in good faith could file a petition with the court under Article 32 or Article 226 of the Constitution on behalf of those who were poor and had little knowledge and resources.
In addition, the Court came to the conclusion that there is no restriction in Article 32’s phrasing that makes the criterion of locus standi a requirement sine qua non. In addition, the Court emphasized that the phrase “suitable proceeding” in Article 32 must be understood in the following manner: the need of appropriateness must be taken into account in light of the purpose for which the proceeding is to be taken, namely the enforcement of a fundamental right. As a result, the petition was determined to be maintainable since the petitioner was acting in the public interest by defending the basic rights of the underprivileged.
In response, the court rejects this argument by emphasizing the nature of proceedings under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. The court points out that Article 32 is intended for enforcing fundamental rights and is not bound by rigid procedural rules.
The court’s position is that Article 32 allows any person to approach the Supreme Court for the enforcement of fundamental rights and doesn’t restrict this right to only those whose rights are directly violated. Article 32 grants the Supreme Court broad powers to issue directions, orders, or writs, including various types of writs, to enforce fundamental rights. The court contends that the Constitution intentionally doesn’t prescribe specific procedures for exercising this power.
The court emphasizes that the right to live with human dignity, as enshrined in Article 21, is deeply connected to the Directive Principles of State Policy, specifically Article 39 (e) and (f), Articles 41, and 42. These principles imply the protection of workers’ health, children’s well-being, educational opportunities, humane working conditions, and maternity relief as fundamental requirements for human dignity. While these principles are not directly enforceable in court, if legislation already exists to ensure these basic essentials, the state is obligated to enforce it. Neglecting to enforce such legislation would be tantamount to denying individuals their right to live with human dignity, particularly for weaker sections of society.
They also highlights that the state, both the central and state governments, is constitutionally obliged to protect the fundamental rights of all individuals, especially those unable to defend themselves against exploitation by powerful opponents. It further asserts that the central government is responsible for ensuring compliance with various social welfare and labor laws enacted by Parliament. The state government (in this case, Haryana) is obligated to uphold these laws when granting mining leases to contractors, ensuring that workmen receive the benefits and protections stipulated in these laws.
The Supreme Court asserts its discretion in determining the weight assigned to the facts and data presented in the commissioner’s report. It justifies the use of a flexible approach for the enforcement of fundamental rights, allowing the court to adapt to the specific circumstances of each case. The court firmly maintains that the power of the Supreme Court under Article 32 cannot be limited by the rules of Order XLVI of the Supreme Court Rules 1966.
This also extends the discussion to the jurisdiction of High Courts under Article 226, emphasizing that the same principles and approach apply. High Courts have an even broader scope, as they can enforce not only fundamental rights but also any legal right, making the need for flexibility in procedure even more critical.
In this context, a significant point arose concerning whether stone quarrying should be considered a ‘mine’ as defined in Section 2(j) of the Mines Act, 1952. According to this definition, any excavation where operations for obtaining minerals, including stone quarrying, are carried out should qualify as a ‘mine.’ However, since these stone quarries have excavations extending below the overlying ground, they do not fit the criteria of “open cast workings.” Additionally, the respondents sought to exempt themselves from the Act of 1952 by invoking Section 3(1)(b), which excludes quarries from its purview. Nonetheless, the stone quarries do not align with the conditions set forth in Section 3(1)(b) because their operations are underground rather than “open cast workings,” and explosives are employed in these mining activities.
Regarding the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, the Court clarified that the contractors known as ‘thekedars’ or ‘jamadars’ indeed fall under Section 2(1)(b) of the Act, as do the owners, meeting the criteria laid out in Section 2(1)(g). Nevertheless, if a particular organization employs five or more workers meeting the definition of ‘Inter-State Migrant Workmen’ outlined in Section 2(1)(e), the Act applies solely to the establishments where these workers are engaged.
While a majority of laborers in Haryana’s stone quarries and stone crushers originate from states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, as highlighted in Dr. Patwardhan’s report, there is only a minor representation from Haryana. Therefore, the Court deemed it necessary to investigate whether the state’s employers engage any inter-state stoneworkers.
In order to meet the constitutional requirement, the Haryana government was directed to enforce the Mining Act, 1952, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Minimum Wages Act of 1948, the Workmen Compensation Act of 1923, the Employees’ State Insurance Act of 1948, the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1952, and the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961.
In its ruling, the Court emphasized the significance of upholding children’s rights to education, safety, and health while progressing India as a democratic society. Recognizing the economic challenges that might prevent the immediate abolition of child labor, the Court stressed the need for practical steps to protect and enhance the rights of underprivileged children in India.
The Court referenced various constitutional provisions and principles, including Article 21, Article 24, Article 39(e) (prohibiting the employment of citizens in jobs unsuitable for their age or strength), Article 39(f) (highlighting the State’s duty to safeguard children from exploitation and provide them with opportunities for healthy development), and Article 45 (mandating free compulsory education for all children under 14 years). Additionally, the Court considered India’s international obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entail providing free primary education to all children and safeguarding them from economic exploitation. The Court integrated measures from a prior case, M.C. Mehta v. Province of Tamil Nadu and Ors, into its orders for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These measures encompassed guidelines for states to create plans to progressively eliminate child labor for those under 14, ensure compulsory education for child laborers in factories, mines, and other industries, provide nutritious meals for children, and regulate the employment of children under 14 in such industries.
In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s ruling marks a big step toward ending child labor and bonded labor in India. It underlines the need to safeguard vulnerably employed individuals, defends constitutional and international commitments, and emphasizes children’s rights to safety, health, and education.
The ruling demands that labor rules be strictly enforced, that working conditions be improved, and that underserved populations have better access to healthcare and education. This ruling establishes a critical precedent for defending the rights of those who are most at risk, ultimately paving the way for India to have a brighter and more equitable future underpinned by the ideals of justice, equality, and human rights.
Pulugam Devaki, an Intern at Legal Vidhiya, writes this Case summary.