M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu and others

AIR 1997 SC 699; (1996) 6 SCC 756; 1996 (9) SCALE 42; JT 1996 (11) SC 685
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The Petitioner was an individual concerned about the high rate of employment of children in the Match factories of Sivakasi in Kamaraj District of Tamil Nadu State. He contended that such employment was hazardous and unconstitutional. Being aggrieved, he filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution. The Respondent Government did not deny the existence of child labour, but instead offered suggestions to ameliorate the problem. The Supreme Court issued an order in 1990 calling for a ban on child labour in the manufacturing process of matchsticks and fireworks. However, subsequent to this order, an accident occurred in the Sivakasi Match Factories in which 39 people died. After this was published, the Court took suo moto cognizance of the incident. The Court appointed a Committee to investigate the matter and make suggestions, such as payment of compensation.

On the issue of child labour, the Court held that this malady was not prevalent in Sivakasi alone. Therefore, the Court held that it was necessary to address this issue at a national level in order to find a suitable solution that would rid the country of this problem. The Court held that Articles 24, 39(e) and 9(f), 41 and 47 obligated the State to abolish child labour while ensuring healthy development of the child. The Court held that India had also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 32 the Government of India is required to take legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to ensure protection of the child from hazardous exploitation and its healthy development. In the domestic sphere, the Court held that there are several pieces of legislation such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 (the Act) that protect children from exploitation. However, the Court took note of the fact that poverty compels a family to push their child into hazardous employment. The Court held that it was thus necessary to fulfill the legislative intent behind the Act to ensure the healthy development of a child. The Court directed that anyone contravening the provisions of the Act would pay a sum of Rs 20,000 to the concerned authority. This sum would be deposited in a Child Labour Rehabilitation cum Welfare Fund (the Fund). This income from the Fund would be used for the concerned child.

As to the provision of employment of an adult in place of a child, the Court held that it is not possible for the Respondent Government to ensure such a uniform scheme. However, the Court held that the Government could, in cases where alternative employment is not possible, deposit a sum of Rs 5,000 to the Fund, to be used by the concerned adult. In this case, the child would be spared the prospect of hazardous employment as the family would gain an additional source of income.

The Court issued certain guidelines in this regard to be followed by the Respondent Government such as:

  • Identification of the hazardous industries in which child labour is common;
  • Provision of alternative employment, and in cases where it is not possible, to provide the family with a sum of Rs 25,000 each month, per child. This employment or payment would be discontinued if the child was not sent for education;

Where non-hazardous jobs are concerned, the working hours of the child would be not more than 6 hours a day, and would receive education for two hours a day. The cost of education was to be borne by the employer.

“Abolition of child labour is definitely a matter of great public concern and significance.” Para. 14.

“It may be that the problem would be taken care of to some extent by insisting on compulsory education.” Para. 27.