Recently the Supreme Court while hearing a public interest litigation regarding the exploitation of bonded labourers, observed that not a single offending employer had been convicted by way of imprisonment. While stating that the petitioners had sensitised the court to the deplorable conditions of bonded labourers in India, the bench has also taken note of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report that 2,780 cases involving about one lakh bonded labourers have been registered. It has ordered a fresh survey by the states to find out the total number of such people still to be rescued from employers.
This erudite ruling has woken many of us from our supercilious slumber. After 65 years of independence it is tragic that the menace of bonded labour continues to haunt us. It’s fact that a large number of children are employed as domestic helps or in many other trades. This denies them the opportunity to attend school from Standard I to VIII as mandated under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. The court directed the panchayats and other local bodies to identify such children and ensure that they get proper education. The Bench said fresh surveys should be conducted once in three years in all states/Union Territories and mandated strict punishment for offending employers.
The founding fathers of our republic were aware of the menace of bonded labour, both of adults and children. They made laws that would keep these social evils under check. Article 23(1) of the Indian Constitution states that traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) too protects individuals from unlawful compulsory labour. Section 374 of the IPC states ‘Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labour against the will of that person, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.’
International conventions emphatically condemn any form of bonded labour. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
Child trafficking is rampant in India and this fuels child labour. According to government reports 55,000 children go missing every year. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has published reports claiming that child labour is prevalent in the Indian diamond industry. More recently a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claims children as young as 5 years old are employed in the silk industry, where they are subject to all kinds of inhumane treatment. In July 2012 there was a report on the ‘rat holes’ of Meghalaya, where thousands of children toil in the nearly 5,000 private coal mines in and around the Jaintia hills region. Government reports claim that 2.5 million children are employed as domestic helps or in hotels, while NGOs claim that the actual figure is as high as 30 million.
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 explicitly prohibits children (defined as any person below the age of 14) from working in any occupation listed in Part A of the Schedule; for example: Catering at railway establishments, plastics factories, automobile garages, etc. and occupations listed in Part B of the Schedule; for example: beedi making, tanning, soap manufacture, brick kilns and roof tiles units, etc.
The Union cabinet in August 2012 announced that it would seek to ban the employment of all forms of child labour. The current law is contradictory to the Right to Education Act (2009) and the government is under pressure to meet the 2016 ILO deadline for the abolition of the worst forms of child labour. However noble intentions alone cannot solve the problem. The almost non-existent conviction rate for offenders is proving to be a bane. Not a single conviction after 65 years of independence! This wise ruling by the Supreme Court will hopefully spur the authorities to purposeful action. Abraham Lincoln once said “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” India cannot aspire for greatness, until she emancipates herself from the fetters of bonded labour.
(The writer is a faculty member at Christ University, Bangalore)