SC issue notices to UP, Bihar on plea alleging bonded labour in brick kilns

Labourers are seen working at a brick kiln on the eve of Labour Day, during the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown, on the outskirts of Amritsar. Photo: PTI

The Supreme Court has asked Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to respond to a plea alleging that the authorities concerned failed to take prompt action to help 187 victims of bonded labour who are working in brick kilns in these two states.

A bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao was hearing the plea which has sought urgent release and rehabilitation of the victims, including pregnant women and children, who are being allegedly held at three different brick kilns in these states.

The apex court directed the district magistrates of Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh and Rohtas in Bihar to submit a report regarding action taken by them in "liberating 187 bonded labour victims working in brick kilns whose details are given in the order passed by the National Human Rights Commission".

The petition said that on May 11 this year, the NHRC had taken cognisance on the complaints filed on this issue and directed the district administration of Sambhal and Rohtas to depute a team of officers for conducting spot inquiry and file an action taken report (ATR) within 15 days.

The bench, also comprising Justices Krishna Murari and S Ravindra Bhat, directed both the district magistrates "to file a detailed report of the action taken by them pursuant to the directions issued by NHRC before the next date of hearing".

The apex court has posted the matter for hearing on June 9.

The bench also issued notices to the Centre and others on the plea which has also sought a direction to the authorities to frame "specific guidelines to release, protect, rehabilitate and repatriate bonded labourers during the Covid-19 pandemic taking into account measures to ensure access to shelter, food supplies, compensation and healthcare" during the pandemic.

The plea, filed by social worker Zahid Hussain, has said that immediate rescue and rehabilitation of these 187 bonded labourers is necessary as they are allegedly made to do hard physical labour in inhuman conditions with only one meal a day.

"From increased isolation to restriction of movement, lack of food supplies, lack of healthcare, non-payment of wages and restricted access to law enforcement authorities, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely exacerbated the abusive conditions that bonded labourers are trapped in," it said.

It has also pushed persons who were not originally working in a state of bondage, into a state of bonded labour," the plea said. It said that in April 2019, the petitioner had received information about three instances of bonded labour at different brick kilns in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

It said that on May 8, three complaints were filed before the NHRC alleging that 187 persons were being exploited for illegal bonded labour in the brick kilns.

It said that the NHRC, which had taken cognisance on the complaints, had mentioned in its order that there are many pregnant women among these bonded labourer families and they are in urgent need of rescue, release, relocation, food and stay.

It alleged that despite NHRC's direction, the administration has not taken appropriate steps as a result of which these bonded labours are working in "perilous and inhuman working conditions".

It said though Covid-19 has caused a strain on state authorities, the constitutional right against forced labour, prohibition of child labour and basic right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution cannot be suspended.

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