Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India and others (1983)

AIR 1984 SC 802; 1984 Lab IC 560; 1983 (2) SCALE 1151; (1984) 3 SCC 161; [1984 ] 2 SCR 67; 1984 (16) UJ 29
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The Petitioner was an ‘an organisation dedicated to the cause of release of bonded labourers’. It conducted a survey in stone quarries and mines in Faridabad district. It found that several workmen in these mines were migrant workers from other States in India who were ‘bonded labourers.’ They were living in conditions of abject poverty. The mine owners did not provide them with shelter, clean drinking water, latrines or medical facilities, among other things. The workers were also subject to respiratory infections due to the pollution generated by stone crushers. There also existed an illegal system of thekedars or middlemen who extracted a large percentage of wages from the workmen as commission. The Petitioner, on behalf of these workmen, addressed a letter to the Court invoking the jurisdiction of Article 32 of the Constitution and sought reliefs for, among other things, reduction in air pollution, clean and potable drinking water, conservancy facilities, medical facilities and compensation. The Supreme Court treated it as public interest litigation and appointed a commission for inquiry into the Petitioner’s allegations. The Respondent-Government challenged the petition on the ground that it was not procedurally in accordance with the Rules of the Supreme Court and the Code of Civil Procedure.

On the issue of procedural infirmities, the Court held that in the instant case, a letter could be treated as a writ petition under Article 32. The Court held that in matters of public interest, when the oppressed are unable to afford legal aid, procedural flexibility should be permitted.

On the issue of air pollution at the mines the Court held that the Central Government and the State of Haryana should take steps to ensure that it is reduced. The Court took note of the fact that workmen were subjected to infections like tuberculosis due to the constant presence of dust. Thus the Court suggested one of two measures to be adopted in this regard-a continuous spraying of water over the stone crusher or the installation of a dust sucking machine. The Court directed the Central Government and the State of Haryana to comply with these suggestions and submit a report.

As to whether the Respondent Government was obliged to provide clean drinking water to the workmen, the Court held in the affirmative. The Court held that the Mines Act 1952 provided that ‘mine-lessees and stone crusher owners shall make effective arrangements for providing and maintaining at suitable points conveniently situated a sufficient supply of cool and wholesome drinking water for all workmen’. Thus the Court directed the Respondent Government to provide clean drinking water, the purity of which should be on a scale of two litres for every person employed. The water had to be stored in hygienic containers to be cleaned and refilled everyday and kept at accessible and shady areas. The containers would be looked after by women and children who would be paid a minimum wage for it. The Respondent Government was also directed to order the mine owners to obtain tankers of water from an unpolluted source and supply it to the workmen at frequent intervals.

On the issue of lack of conservancy facilities, the Court directed the Respondent Government to install separate latrines and urinals for men and women in accordance with the Mines Act 1952. The mine owners were to ensure that the latrines were to be in sanitary conditions and adequate in number, with a continuous supply of water.

As to whether medical facilities and first aid should be provided to the workers the Court held in the affirmative. The Court held that the provisions governing health and safety of workers in the Mines Act, 1952 and Mines Rules 1955 are applicable. Thus the Court directed the Respondent Government to immediately provide adequate medical facilities to the workers. Moreover, workers required to blast explosives were to be trained under the Mines Vocational Training Rules 1966 and be qualified in first aid. The Court held that families of workmen were entitled to medical aid and reimbursement of expenses in that regard. In case of injuries suffered at the workplace, the workmen and/or their families were to be hospitalized at the expense of the mine owners.

On the issue of compensation due to injuries or diseases suffered at the workplace, the Court held that the provisions of the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923 would prevail. The Court held that concerned Inspecting Officer would render legal assistance to the victim to file his or her claim before the appropriate court. The Court held that the lower court should dispose off the medical claim at the earliest. The Court held that the Respondent Government should visit the mines every fortnight to check whether the workmen are infected by injury or disease. If so, the Government was directed to provide medical and legal assistance to them.

The Court appointed a Commissioner from the Ministry of Labour, Government of India to ensure that the Government was carrying out the directions as laid down by the Court.

‘[T]here can be no doubt that pure drinking water is absolutely essential to the health and welfare of the workmen and some authority has to be responsible for providing it.’ Para. 12.
‘This right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly Clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Articles 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity and no State neither the Central Government nor any State Government has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials.’ Para. 14.