Author: Manognya Devarakonda.
(1984) 3 SCC 161.
NAMES OF THE PARTIES
Petitioner: Bandhua Mukti Morcha
Respondent: Union of India and others
Justice N. Bhagwati;
Justice S. Pathak;
Justice Amarnath Sen.
Judicial activism that started majorly in 1970s played a major role in the way the Indian Judiciary is functioning today. Even the attitude of citizens has significantly changed. Citizens have now become well equipped with the power to file a case representing some other victims. This, in fact, did make people responsible. However, these days, several frivolous PILs are being filed which only increase the time and burden on the Judiciary.
The following case, Bandhua Mukti Morcha is one of the pioneering judgments in the field of Public Interest Litigation. This takes us back to that era when a simple letter to an individual SC Judge has been referred to a Bench and considered as a PIL case file in the interest of justice. The case deals with bonded labour, infringement of their basic human rights and their appalling lives.
- Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front), a non-governmental organisation addressed a letter to a Judge of Supreme Court urging to release the bonded labourers (many of them being migrant labourers) from two stone quarries in Faridabad district. They were working under inhuman conditions, many of them being bonded labourers who have not given consent to this type of employment.
- The petitioner also affixed the thumb impressions of the said bonded labourers in the given letter.
- The Supreme Court, finding some substance in the matter, considered it as a writ petition, issued notice to the respective stone quarries and appointed two advocates as Commissioners to inquire in the matter.
- The Commissioners visited the quarries, interviewed each of the persons mentioned in the letter to find out whether they were willingly working and how their conditions in the stone quarry are.
- The Commission submitted the report confirming the allegations made in the letter.
- The Court then directed the copies of the report to all the mine lessees and stone crushers who were the Respondents so that they have an opportunity to file their reply.
- It further directed that the workmen whose names were listed in the writ petition and the report would be free to go anywhere that they liked. The Court also appointed Dr. Patwardhan of IIT to carry out a socio-legal investigation in the given matter.
- Whether a letter personally addressed to a Judge be considered as a writ petition:
- as per the definition of Article 32 of the Constitution?
- in the absence of a verified petition?
- Does Court have power to appoint a Commission to make a report to Court under the scope of Article 32?
- Whether the petition attracted Article 32 as no basic fundamental rights have been infringed of the workmen.
The writ petition was held maintainable as the Court observed that there was a violation of fundamental rights. Firstly, they were deprived of the “Right to live with human dignity and free from exploitation” under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The Court deeply examined and exposed the wide scope under Article 32. The Court has the power to appoint a commission or investigating body as it is an “appropriate” proceeding to secure the enforcement of fundamental rights. Article 32 is not confined to issuing high prerogative writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, quo warranto and prohibition, but is much wider to issue any directions, orders or writs.
The three-judge bench laid down the importance of a Public Interest Litigation. It stated that a letter addressed to a Judge can be considered as a writ petition where the petitioner or the one whose rights have been infringed come from a weaker social and financial background due to which they may not be expected to understand the procedures for filing a writ petition in the Supreme Court. It is also obvious that the poor and the disadvantaged cannot possibly produce relevant material or evidence before the Court. In such cases, the Court should take an active approach to gather the facts and data, which can be done by appointing Commissions or investigating body, for the purpose of ensuring justice.
It invigorated the spirit of a PIL and stated that any public-spirited person can file a PIL for the enforcement of one’s or other’s fundamental rights.
The Court decided that an action has to be taken on the Respondents and they are liable as they have not abided by the provisions of
- Mines Act 1952,
- Inter-State Migrant workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, and
- Labour laws of both Central and State which refer to the workmen’s basic and essential rights.
The Court deliberately discussed the related provisions of Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1979. It gave a clear understanding on who can be called as a ‘principal employer’, ‘contractor’ or ‘agent’ and ‘who can be considered as ‘workers’ under this Act. The Court came to a conclusion that the mine lessee is a ‘principal employer’ as they employ these migrant workers. These mine lessees have a settlement with the thekedars and zamindars on the output of stones laid out, thus making them as ‘contractors’ under the Act. According to the report of Dr Patwardhan, the ‘thekedars’ ask the old workers to ‘inform’ the young people in their respective villages (which are in other States), about the employment. Therefore, the workers come under the Act as they joined the work via ‘agents’. Concluding the discussion of this Act, the Court decided that the State of Haryana must take an action on the Respondents according to provisions stated in the Mines Act and Inter-State Migrant Workers Act.
Further, the workers were also entitled to compensation under provisions of Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970. The thekedars who were deemed as ‘contractors’ in the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1970, will be fortiori ‘contractors’ in this Act. The ‘appropriate’ State here will be the State of Haryana and should take according the provisions of the Act.
The workers should be paid not less than the minimum wage stating less in accordance with the Minimum Wages Act 1948.
The Court directed the Government of Haryana to draw up a scheme or programme for a ‘better and more meaningful rehabilitation of the freed bonded labourers’ in the light of guidelines dated September 2,1982. The Court directed the Vigilance Committees and DMs to take assistance on non-political social action groups and voluntary agencies to search and identify forced labour to rehabilitate and free them as per Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976
The Court clearly states the balance of power that a legislature is empowered with. When a legislature has the power to create laws, then it also becomes its duty to check whether such laws are properly implemented or not. The Legislature did not closely monitor or inspect the implementation of the Mines Act and Inter-State Migrants Act which resulted in severe exploitation of workers and deprivation of their human rights.
In page 165 para 9, it was stated by the court that a PIL is not taken up with an intention to criticize the Government or to show its power over the executive and legislature. A public interest litigation is to protect a fundamental right of any citizen and to ensure it remains protected. In fact, it is an opportunity for the Government to relook into the laws they made, monitor their implementation, ultimately to ensure human rights.
It was rightly stated by the Court that a new procedure should be taken for the enforcement of the fundamental rights for the weaker sections of the society. As they lack resources financially and lack awareness about the justice system, they are often kept at a weaker side. The opposite parties, which are usually big companies have all ways to produce evidence backed by a battery of lawyers. So, in such cases, to ensure fairness, the court must move to a new procedure where such a citizen is given opportunity to be represented and present the relevant evidence. Para 13 states “But to what extent do you think the Judiciary has taken a new procedure to ensure fairness? Is the weaker section now, fairly represented?”
The question whether it was an “appropriate” procedure? Writing a letter to a Justice considered as a writ petition. The court stated any public- spirited person can file a PIL for those who are1:
- In Poverty
- Socially disadvantaged and,
- Economically disadvantaged sections of the society.
For people who cannot produce relevant evidence, the Court voluntarily has expressed its responsibility to empower them and help them. It for this reason that a Commission consisting of advocates was set up who would look into the issue, gather the data and facts and present it to the Court. The court would then send this report to the respective parties, who can present their objections, if any. Accordingly, the Court adjudicates on the matter. This procedure seems logical and sound and so is “appropriate”.
In cases where a group of people together present a PIL, there is often a scope for difference in the facts stated between the parties. And thus, in such cases the Court considering the betterment for all, shall take an appropriate procedure for revelation of facts and data unbiased.
Public Interest Litigation is great tool for the Judiciary to directly connect to the society for ensuring the citizens having their fundamental rights protected. It has a great flexibility and though a format procedure is not stated, it should be based on the principles of judicial tenets and judicial philosophy.
The court perused over rules under Supreme Court Rules, Code of Civil Procedure to check whether appointing a ‘Committee’ is overriding powers or not. “In view of Rule 6 of Order 47 of Supreme Court rules, Order 46 cannot detract from the inherent power of the Supreme Court to appoint a commission, if the appointment of such commission is found necessary for the purpose of securing enforcement of a fundamental right in exercise of its constitutional jurisdiction under Article 32”2
The role of judiciary in PIL is more assertive, creative and stands out with a positive attitude. This is not an adversary litigation but a litigation to secure the fundamental rights of larger group of people.
But the question arises whether a letter written can be sent to a particular judge and request him/her to adjudicate upon the matter. Even if we consider the person involved is financially and socially disadvantaged, to what extent is it right for that person to have a choice of Judge and a forum? Isn’t it against the basic principle that any person will not be given the freedom to choose their own Judge?
It was clearly stated in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case that a letter should not be communicated to a particular Judge.
This statement can have two sides of opinions. One side, where it goes against the principles of Judiciary. Is it right to do that? An article discusses about this. In the year 1982, a lecture on “Judiciary: Attacks and Survival” in Symbiosis Law School by a learned Judge, it was expressed by him that allowing a complainant to choose a Judge or a forum of his own is clearly subversive of the judicial process which enjoins that no litigant could choose his own forum.3 At the same time, such parties might face great difficulties in directly filing a case in the Supreme Court due to lack of awareness and their very minimal wages.
However, Justice P.N.Bhagwathi in his speech in a law school about the topic “Judicial Activism in India”, he brought up an interesting word named “epistolary jurisdiction” meaning, a writ petition can be made by just writing epistles to the Court. Parameters have been laid down for invoking this jurisdiction. The letter should be written on behalf of the disadvantaged parties who do not have resources to come to Court and file a case.
Therefore, in my opinion, a sort of balance has to be there while deciding such situations. Each case is bound to have different facts and circumstances and using only one lens to look into them, does not only cause injustice but also loses the spirit of ‘judicial activism’.
In the new Digital Era of Bharat, we can now file complaints electronically as well. As there was a technological boom, where over 700 million people use smartphones, a mere guidance of filing a case has to be given to them. Social media today is playing a critical role of bringing such incidents into limelight. However, caution has to be taken where most of the PILs today are frivolous in nature, which are not only wasting the Court’s time, but also defaming the very initiative of bringing PIL into limelight. Ultimately, neither the parties nor the Judicial system should be affected but the ‘justice’ should prevail.
Bandhua Mukti Morcha Case has been a landmark case in the history of India that empowered citizens with the true spirit of Public Interest Litigation. The NGO, Bandhua Mukti Morcha should be commended for its great efforts in representing the voiceless people of India. The representation helped in bringing the attention of the Judiciary into the horrific lives of the many bonded labourers whose basic fundamental rights have been infringed.
All the procedure required for filing a case, appealing to the Supreme Court have been relaxed by the Judiciary considering the dire situation of the labourers who did not have basic access to the legal remedies in the interest of justice. Public Interest Litigation is great tool for the Judiciary to directly connect to the society for ensuring the citizens having their fundamental rights protected. It has a great flexibility and though a format procedure is not stated, it should be based on the principles of judicial tenets and judicial philosophy.
However, this easy way of filing PILs should not be misused by the public who are these days, filing frivolous cases. Such actions will only make the cause of introducing PIL in India less impactful. Therefore, let us be responsible citizens who can stand for any genuine cause in society. The amicable Judiciary shall stand by the truth, and will always deliver judgment in the interest of justice.
- Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors , AIR 1984 SCC 802, Para 12.[↩]
- Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors , AIR 1984 SCC 802, Para 14.[↩]
- Hegde, N. (1992). Public Interest Litigation and Control of Government. Student Advocate, 4, 1-7.[↩]
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