The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Nitish Kumar government not to “turn a blind eye” to the problem of bonded labour in Bihar merely because the administration was focused on handling the migrant workers’ influx amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
A Bench, led by Justice L. Nageswara Rao, was dealing with the delay on the part of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in implementing a May 11 order of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to rescue and repatriate 187 bonded labourers working in brick kilns under inhuman conditions.
The Bihar government explained that the administration was busy addressing the huge influx of migrant labourers.
“All your energy may be concentrated on the problem of migrant workers, but you cannot turn a blind eye to the problem of bonded labourers. Minimum wages were not paid to these workers,” Justice Rao told Gopal Singh, counsel for Bihar, at a virtual hearing.
Uttar Pradesh Additional Advocate-General Aishwarya Bhati said the victims had already been released. First Information Reports (FIRs) had been registered against the owners of the brick kilns and the workers had been repatriated to Bihar, their home State.
Justice Rao referred to the Supreme Court’s decisions delivered by two Benches, 10 years apart, condemning bonded labour. The Benches — one led by Justice J.S. Verma and the other by Justice Rajendra Babu — had ordered strict implementation of the anti-bonded labour law, continuous monitoring, rehabilitation of bonded labourers and periodic reports.
The court, disposing of the petition filed by activist Zahid Hussain, asked the NHRC to consider drafting guidelines for repatriation and protection of bonded labourers keeping in mind the conditions arising out of the pandemic.
Mr. Hussein, represented by senior advocate Anitha Shenoy, said the District Magistrates of Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh and Rohtas in Bihar did not take prompt action to aid 187 victims, including pregnant women, children, and even infants. They worked in three kilns in the harshest conditions in the extreme heat.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant nationwide lockdown has intensified every factor of vulnerability that bonded labourers are ordinarily subjected to. From increased isolation to restriction of movement, lack of food supplies and healthcare, non-payment of wages and restricted access to law enforcement authorities, the pandemic has severely exacerbated the abusive conditions that bonded labourers are trapped in,” the petition said.
It pointed out that “millions of adults and children across India are enslaved by the scourge”, despite the enactment of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act in 1976.