Author: Mudra Motivaras, 1st Year, LL.B, Jitendra Chauhan College of Law, Mumbai.
The article has been written by the author while pursuing the internship programme with us.
Appellant: Bandhua Mukti Morcha
Respondent: Union of India & others
Bench: Justice P.N. Bhagvati, Justice P.S. Pathak and Justice Amarendra Nath Sen
Court: Supreme Court of India
Citation: AIR 1984 SCC 802
Decided on: December 16, 1983
Facts of the case:
Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberalisation Front) is a non-governmental organisation which has dedicated its activities for the welfare of bonded labourers by releasing them from bondage and slavery. This organisation on the basis of a survey filed a petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to Justice P.N. Bhagvati by writing a letter against the exploitation of labourers being done in a district of Faridabad, Haryana. The letter also stated the names of the labourers working in that area. The petitioner prayed that a writ petition shall be issued in this context for proper implementation of various social welfare acts like The child labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act for children welfare, The Maternity Benefit Act for women welfare, The Unorganised Worker’s Social Security Act for unorganised sector, Minimum Wages Act, Employees State Insurance Act and Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. The court treated the letter as a writ petition and issued an order for the appointment of a commission headed by Mr Ashok Shrivastav and Mr Ashok Pand to look into the matter of these labourers. On investigation, the allegations made by the petitioner were proved. Further, the commission made a report which stated: The labourers were forced to work and they were not allowed to leave. The work atmosphere was so polluted that it was difficult to breathe. Due to this, many labourers were subjected to chronic diseases. Pure drinking water was not provided to them. They were not provided with proper shelter so they had to live in ‘jhuggies’ which were not able to protect the labourers from sun and rain. They were not compensated for their work. They were not provided with medical facilities in case of the accident occurred in the course of employment.
Petitioner argued that many labourers working in stone quarries. They belonged to different areas of the country and they were forced to work under ‘inhuman and intolerable conditions’. Most of them were bonded Labourers. The fundamental rights and various social welfare laws were not implemented for these labourers. The labourers were not provided minimum wages according to minimum wages act, 1948.
The Respondent argued that merely a letter can not be treated as a writ petition as the petitioner has no locus standi. No fundamental right of the labourers is violated. Therefore, article 32 of the Indian Constitution can not be attracted. Under article 32, the court is not empowered to appoint any commission for the purpose of investigation in this context. It is not according to Rule XLVI of Supreme Court Rules, 1966. Labourers working in stone quarries are not bonded labourers within the meaning of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Reports made by the commissions do not have any evidentiary value as they are not cross-examined and they are based on only ex-parte statements. There might be forced labourers in the state of Haryana but they have not bonded labourers within the meaning of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. According to the Act, the labour can only be a bonded labour if he has presumed to incur a bonded debt.
The court held that the letter addressed to the court can be treated as writ petition if it in the public interest at large. If the labourers are being forced to work and they are working in miserable conditions without any food, water and shelter facilities then it is a violation of the right to live with human dignity under Article 21. It also violated article 23 of the Indian Constitution which grants fundamental right against exploitation. Clause (1) of Article 32 says that the Supreme Court can be moved for enforcement of a fundamental right by any ‘appropriate’ proceeding. There is no limitation in regard to the kind of proceeding envisaged in clause (1) of Article 32 except that the proceeding must be “appropriate” and this requirement of appropriateness must be judged in the light of the purpose for which the proceeding is to be taken, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right. Also, clause (2) of Article 32 confers power to issue any direction or order which is necessary for the enforcement of fundamental rights. It is not obligatory for the supreme court to cross-examine the evidence and follow an adversarial procedure in case a new jurisdiction is created for enforcement of fundamental rights. The power of the Supreme Court is not limited in this context. Also, the respondent did not make any effort to cross-examine the report. Further, the court ordered the government of Haryana that it will constitute a vigilance committee within 6 weeks in each division of district to ensure compliance of the guidelines laid down by the supreme court. The Haryana government will appoint a district magistrate to identify the bonded labour practised in the country. The Haryana government has to rehabilitate the bonded Labourers within 3 months. Both central and state government will take necessary steps to ensure that minimum wages are paid to the labourers. In case of transportation, The central government will appoint inspecting offices to conduct surprise check once in a week to ensure that no truck is being overloaded. If any default is found then action will be taken against the main owners. The state and central government shall ensure that the stone crusher owners continuously spray the stone crushing machine or install a dust sucking machine and a report with regard to this shall be submitted to the court on or before February 28, 1984. Both central and state government has to ensure that at least 2 litres of drinking water per day, sanitation facilities, medical facilities and the unpolluted environment is provided to labourers. Maternity benefit act, 1961 is implemented and proper training as per Mines Vocational Training Rules, 1966 is provided to the labourers.
The judgement delivered by the supreme court, in this case, is indeed a remarkable judgement. Supreme court gave fair reasoning to its judgement. The state and central government are under obligation to provide humane conditions of work by providing pollution-free environment, freedom, dignity, educational and medical facilities. But even these basic essentials were not provided to the poor labourers which violated their fundamental rights under article 21. The supreme court can enforce a fundamental right by appropriate proceedings. This is necessary as any rigid formula will make it difficult to enforce a fundamental right in India where there is so much poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. This is also a reason for imbalance between two parties involved in a particular case. Therefore, in such cases, strict adherence to the adversarial procedure can cause injustice to the poor party who’s been deprived of legal aid.
When there is a violation of fundamental rights particularly in case of poor people then it becomes necessary for the court to create its own jurisdiction otherwise the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution will have no meaning left. Due to illiteracy and poverty of labourers, it would have been difficult for them to prove bonded or forced labour prevailed on them. It would be totally inhumane if we ask these poor labourers to undergo a formal process of trial for the sake of evidence. The orders issued by the supreme court were extremely necessary to prevent the bonded labour system in the country. Constitution of vigilance committee is important as its main function is to identify bonded labourers. It will also include representatives of non-political social groups which is extremely important to identify bonded labourers. The magistrate and judicial officers should take strict steps by imposing heavy fines and strict punishments to control the violation of labourers. The judiciary should not impose such small fines on the employers which hardly touch their pockets. The fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution are supreme and cannot be ignored merely on the ground of technicality or any rule of procedure. Therefore, in the interest of justice, it should be at the court’s discretion whether to treat a letter or any form of communication as a writ petition or not. But in some cases, the government escape from their obligations by saying that forced labour does not come within the purview of bonded labour definition under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Though it is true in this case, we can not ignore that labourers were detained and they were refrained to leave from the place of work. This huge exploitation can not be just ignored merely on this defence. Bonded labour and forced labour is a shame on our country. Although the bonded labour system is banned still we have a long way to go.
 The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, No. 11, Acts of Parliament, 1948 (India)
 The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, No. 19, Acts of Parliament, 1976 (India)
 Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & others, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/595099/
 Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, No. 53, Acts of Parliament, 1961 (India)