The Persisting Struggle of Bonded Labourers

 Akshey Kumar[1]

The Constitution is the fundamental and organic law of the nation or state that establishes the institutions and apparatus of government, defines the scope of governmental sovereign powers, and guarantees individual civil rights and civil liberties.[2] Indian Constitution is one of the lengthiest Constitutions in the world, exhaustive and providing the vision on how the fundamental rights of all the citizens could be secured, how conflicts are to be resolved in such a way that the blood and hard work that went in attaining freedom from colonial rule does not go in vain. The Constitution was enacted on 26th November 1949 and came into force on 26th January 1950, and, now we are in the year of 2019, almost 69 years has been completed of independence but still the beggar system in the form of Bonded labour or Forced labour has not been totally abolished in India. It is one among the various socio-economic evils of India.

Beggar system or Bonded labour/Forced labour, these all are abolished as per Article 23 of the Constitution of India, whereas, it is being practiced in our society since ancient times and unfortunately, the nomenclature changed from period to period and place to place in the form of a slave, serf, and bonded labour. The term “Bonded Labour” means any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system.[3] Whereas, the term “Bonded Labour System” means the system of forced labour under which a debtor enters, into an agreement with the creditor that he would render service to him either by himself or through any member of his family or any person dependent on him, for a specified or unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages, in consideration of loan or any other economic consideration obtained by him or any of his ascendants, or in pursuance of any social obligation, or in pursuance of any obligation devolving on him by succession.[4]

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When the Constitution was enacted, Article 23[5]was enshrined in it which prohibited ‘traffic in human beings’, ‘beggar’, and other similar forms of forced labour’. However, no serious efforts were made to give effect to this Article and stamp out the shocking practice of bonded labour. Further, in the landmark judgment of the People Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India[6] it was stated that every form of ‘forced labour’, ‘beggar’ or otherwise, is within the inhibition of Article 23 and it makes no difference whether the person who is forced to give his labour or service to another is remunerated or not, this article strikes at every form of forced labour.

India being world’s largest democratic country where various other social evils prevail, ‘bonded labour’ is also an off-shoot of Caste-system. Mainly the individuals belonging to so-called higher castes are the exploiters and the person belonging to the so-called lower castes are exploited. The basic reason behind this is due to their weak economic and social conditions within the society, furthermore, lack of livelihood, large families, poor education level, lack of awareness among them, etc.

The SC/STs, Dalits are forced to sell their labours for nominal or no remuneration to the village landlord or moneylender. Thus, basically, it is an exploitative practice, roots of which lie in vast inequalities and disparities existing in social, economic and cultural aspects of India. Nowadays, the bonded labour is not only prevalent in the agriculture sector, but also in urban areas, many sectors such as mining, match making, and brick kiln industries, road construction, etc. it is widely practiced.

However, in spite of Constitutional and legal provisions, the implementation of the law is not up to the mark. Slow implementation of law and resistance from persons of higher social strata are not letting this evil practice to be completely wiped out. Justice P.N. Bhagwati in the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[7] had observed that “Bonded Labour is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socioeconomic order which we have promised to build and it is not only an affront to basic human dignity but also constitutes a gross and revolving violation of constitutional values”.

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Further, in the case of Neeraja Chaudhary v. State of M.P.[8]the Supreme Court has observed that bonded labour must be identified and released and, on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated.

Thus, the Supreme Court has always played an active role in fighting this social menace. The efforts of several NGOs and the active role played by the Supreme Court, the system of bonded labour has been on the decline. But it has not abolished altogether from the society which is a very unfortunate event for a country like India, who wants to be a world leader in the 21st century.

We can still see around us, adult and children both working in worst of the working conditions on very little payment; forced to work for 12 to 14 hours in various occupations. Moreover, mental attitude of 97% of so-called higher castes or higher economic strata people have not changed; news reports confirm that still domestic maids are being treated like animals and suffering from various kinds of cruelties; they are provided with very little food, the worst place to sleep, etc. Such kind of incidents cannot be stopped only by the efforts of NGOs or the SC or by Government authorities; it is the people themselves who need to change their mentality. Therefore, it is important that we as a society must change our attitude towards persons of weaker sections and try to restore the value of human dignity which is a part of the right to life.

[1] 3rd Year, School of Law, UPES Dehradun.

[2] Bryan A. Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary, (8th Ed., 2004).

[3] The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Section 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] INDIAN CONST. art. 23.

[6] People Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, (1982) 3 S.C.C. 235.

[7] Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, 1984 S.C.R. (2) 67.

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[8] Neeraja Chaudhary v. State of M.P, (1984) 3 S.C.C. 243.