Indian Laws Against Bonded Labour

A review of the domestic laws in India that protect children against bonded labor and the strength of those laws. The Human Rights Watch report provides extensive review of these laws.

A number of Indian laws (even dating back to before Independence) are supposed to protect exploitation of India’s children. Article 21 of the Constitution of India provides the strongest voice against such exploitation.


In addition, the most significant and effective law with respect to bonded child labour is the Bonded Labour System System (Abolition) Act of 1976. It outlaws all debt bondage including that of children, and it requires government intervention and rehabilitation of the bonded worker. It is the most significant law owing to the fact that it has none of the exemptions from compliance that virtually nullify many of India’s other labor laws.

However, completely absence of enforcement of the law has rendered these laws ineffectual. As of 1996, there has been no conviction in India for bonded labour of children; this despite the fact that NGOs and rights groups estimate that over 15 million children are part of the bonded labour workforce and between 50 to 120 million children are part of India’s labour force.

Every industry that includes bonded child labor – the main ones being beedi, carpets, and silk – violate the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and the constitutional provisions that underlie such an act. In addition, they violate a number of other laws including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, the Factories Act; the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act; and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. All cases documented in this report also violate the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, which is similar in its protections to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.

In addition, under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) rape, extortion, causing grievous hurt, assault, kidnapping, abduction, wrongful confinement, buying or disposing of people as slaves, and unlawful compulsory labor are criminal offences, punishable with up to ten years imprisonment and fines. Under the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986, cruelty to juveniles and withholding the earnings of a juvenile are criminal offences, punishable with up to three years imprisonment and fines.

Indian Constitution

Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to life and liberty. The Indian Supreme Court has interpreted the right of liberty to include, among other things, the right of free movement, the right to eat, sleep and work when one pleases, the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to integrity and dignity of the person, the right to the benefits of protective labor legislation, and the right to speedy justice [S. K. Singh, Bonded Labour and the Law, New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1994, pp. 48-51]. The practice of bonded labor violates all of these constitutionally-mandated rights.

Article 23 of the constitution prohibits the practice of debt bondage and other forms of slavery both modern and ancient:

Traffic in human beings and begar are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law.

Begar is an ancient caste-based obligation, a “form of forced labour under which a person is compelled to work without receiving any remuneration (People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India [Asiad Workers’ Case], AIR 1982 S.C. 1473, paragraph 1486)”. “Other similar forms of forced labour” was interpreted expansively by the Supreme Court in 1982, when it ruled in the seminal Asiad Workers’ Case that both unpaid and paid labour were prohibited by Article 23, so long as the element of force or compulsion was present in the worker’s ongoing services to the employer. Examples of force include overt physical compulsion and compulsion under threat of legal sanction (as for example in the case of an allegedly unpaid debt), as well as more subtle forms of compulsion, including “compulsion arising from hunger and poverty, want and destitution” [For a discussion of Supreme Court decisions affecting bonded labourers, see Y. R. Haragopal Reddy, Bonded Labour System in India, New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1995, ch. 4].

The Supreme Court went on, however, to provide a helpful rule for determining exactly what situations constitute forced labor. “[W]here a person provides labour or service to another for remuneration which is less than minimum wage, the labour or service provided by him clearly falls within the scope and ambit of the word `forced labour’… [People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, (1982) 3 SCC 235, paragraphs 259-260]”. All labor rewarded with less than the minimum wage, then, constitutes forced labor and violates the Constitution of India.

In another landmark case, this one brought on behalf of a group of bonded quarry workers in the early 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled that “[i]t is the plainest requirement of Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution that bonded labourers must be identified and released and on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated…. [A]ny failure of action on the part of the State Government[s] in implementing the provisions of [the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act] would be the clearest violation of Article 21 [and] Article 23 of the Constitution” [Neeraja Chaudhary v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 3 SCC 243, paragraph 255,[1984]].

Article 24 prohibits the employment of children in factories, mines, and other hazardous occupations (“No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment.” Constitution of India, Article 24). Together, Articles 23 and 24 are placed under the heading “Right against Exploitation,” one of India’s constitutionally-proclaimed fundamental rights.

Article 39 requires the state to “direct its policy toward securing” the rights of children vis-à-vis their health and their opportunity to develop themselves.

Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act purports to abolish all debt agreements and obligations arising out of India’s longstanding bonded labor system [Consequently, post-act social action litigation on behalf of bonded laborers is brought under both the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and the Constitution of India. For a discussion of cases see Reddy, Bonded Labour System in India, ch. 4]. It frees all bonded laborers, cancels any outstanding debts against them, prohibits the creation of new bondage agreements, and orders the economic rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers by the state. It also criminalizes all post-act attempts to compel a person to engage in bonded labor, with maximum penalties of three years in prison and a 2,000 rupee fine [The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Sec. 4, 5, 6, and 14]. According to Sec. 2(g) The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act abolishes the “bonded labour system” which is defined as the system of forced, or partly forced labour under which a debtor enters is meant to, and does, cover all of the many permutations of the bonded labor system in modern India.

In addition, there are numerous laws that have so many loopholes that they are rendered ineffective.

Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933

This act predates Independence but remains in force. It is rarely used and rarely mentioned in discussions of bonded labor and child labor, probably because the more recent laws carry penalties that, while lenient themselves, are nonetheless stiffer than those of the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act. The act calls for penalties to be levied against any parent, middleman, or employer involved in making or executing a pledge of a child’s labor.

Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986 and defines a child as “a person who has not completed their fourteenth year of age” [Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, Part I, Section 2(ii)]. It does not prohibit child labor per se, nor does it set a minimum age for the employment of children. Instead, it regulates the hours and conditions of work for child laborers, while prohibiting the employment of children in twenty-five hazardous industries.

The twenty-five occupations and industries where child labor is prohibited are: beedi-making; carpet-weaving; cement manufacture; cloth printing, dyeing and weaving; manufacture of matches, explosives and fireworks; mica-cutting and splitting; shellac manufacture; soap manufacture; tanning; wool-cleaning; the building and construction industry; manufacture of slate pencils; manufacture of agate products; manufacturing processes using toxic metals and substances; “hazardous processes” as defined by the Factories Act, Sec. 87; printing as defined by the Factories Act, Sec. 2; cashew and cashewnut processing; soldering processes in electronic industries, railway transportation; cinder picking, ashpit clearing or building operations in railway premises; vending operations at railway stations; work on ports; sale of firecracker and fireworks; and work in slaughter houses. Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, Part II (Prohibition of employment of children in certain occupations and processes), Sec. 3, Schedules A and B; as amended by Government Notification Nos. No.SO 404(E) (June 5, 1989) and No. SO. 263(E) (March 29, 1994).

Three of the enumerated hazardous industries (beedi industry, carpet-weaving, and cloth printing, dyeing and weaving) rely heavily on bonded labor and were included in the Human Rights Watch investigation. These three industries are the. The other industries discussed in this report are subject to the regulatory aspects of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. However, implementation of the regulatory provisions of the act requires each state to formulate an act-specific set of rules and regulations; the majority of states have not done so as of 1996, ten years after passage of the act.

There are glaring loopholes in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act allow manufacturers to escape application of the law quite easily. First, those workshops “wherein any process is carried on by the occupier with the aid of his family…” lie outside this act [The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, Sec. 3]. The vast majority of child labor takes place in agriculture and cottage industries in the informal sector. Often, the employer does have one of his own children or a niece or nephew working alongside the rest of the children, and this is enough to take his shop out of the purview of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. Even if he does not have a family member working on the premises, he is likely to say that he does, according to labor inspectors, social welfare activists and others familiar with the informal sector.

This exception gives tacit government approval to the use of child labor, when the child is a relative of the family, under conditions that would otherwise be illegal. This exception includes the use of a child labor in hazardous occupations or industries. Nor is this the only exception to the application of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. The act is also inapplicable to government-sponsored schools or training programs. Again, this means that work and conditions ordinarily deemed harmful to children are considered non-harmful so long as they take place under the auspices of an official government program. The best examples of this exception are the approximately two hundred government-run carpet weaving training centers. Carpet weaving is a hazardous and therefore prohibited industry under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. Under the exception for government schools, however, thousands of children are enrolled in this industry, not only with government approval, but with government facilitation and encouragement.

These exceptions are clear violations Article 24 of the Indian Constitution, which states that “no child below 14 shall be employed in any factory or mine or engaged in any hazardous employment.”

These loopholes create daunting enforcement difficulties in the beedi, carpet, and silk industries-the three industries that are both heavily bonded and where child labor of any sort is outlawed by the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. The same difficulties would be noted in the other prohibited industries of the act.

Factories Act, 1948

The Factories Act strictly forbids the employment of children less than fourteen years old in factories. It also includes a sizable loophole, in that the act only applies to factories employing ten or more people with the use of electric or other forms of generated power, or twenty or more people without the use of power. Many small scale industries intentionally fragment the manufacturing process into separate units in order to circumvent application of the Factories Act [To get around this restriction, factory owners have been known to “partition their premises and isolate the areas where work is being done with power”; See Burra, Born to Work, p. 75] and thereby employ children. Others only employ small numbers of people on the books, bringing in dozens of others as unofficial “extras.”

Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966

Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989

This act defines any kind of forced labor, including bonded labor, as an “atrocity” if the victim is a member of a scheduled caste or tribe.

Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979

It requires that establishments employing inter-state migrant workers be registered, that contractors be licensed and that they keep records of all migrant workers recruited, that migrant workers be paid at the same rate as non-migrant workers, and that inspections be carried out to ensure compliance with these provisions [The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, ch. II – ch. VI].

Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970

This act regulates the use of contract labor and provides for its abolition in certain industries, at the discretion of the appropriate government (state or central). Among its provisions are requirements that no wage period exceed one month [The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, Sec. 6, 10, and 64].

Minimum Wages Act, 1948

The Minimum Wages Act sets the minimum wage for certain enumerated occupations and requires that overtime be paid to all workers who work beyond a “normal working day.” In the case of children under fourteen, a “normal working day” is four and a half hours.

Plantation Labour Act, 1951

This act regulates the work and wage conditions of plantation workers, including children over the age of fourteen.

Apprentices Act, 1961

The Apprentices Act regulates the rights and work hours of apprentices, and sets the minimum age for apprenticeships at fourteen years.

Shops and Establishments Act, 1961

This law, which applies to shops, hotels, restaurants, and places of amusement, regulates the hours of work and prohibits the employment of children below a certain age, to be determined by the states. In eleven states, the minimum age for a child worker is fourteen years; in thirteen states, the minimum age is twelve years.

In addition to domestic laws, India is a party to numerous international human rights conventions and is thus legally bound by them. An extensive review is presented by the Human Rights Watch report on bonded labor in India.

These laws include


Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery, 1926

This convention requires signatories to “prevent and suppress the slave trade” and “to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.” It also obligates parties to “take all necessary measures to prevent compulsory or forced labor from developing into conditions analogous to slavery”. Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery, signed at Geneva, September 25, 1926; Protocol Amended the Slavery Convention, signed at Geneva, September 25, 1926, with annex, done at, New York, December 7, 1953, entered into force, December 7, 1953. A slave is someone “over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, done at Geneva, September 7, 1956; entered into force, April 30, 1957 (Supplementary Convention).

Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1956

The supplementary convention on slavery offers further clarification of prohibited practices and refers specifically to debt bondage and child servitude as institutions similar to slavery.

Forced Labour Convention, 1930

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention requires signatories to “suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms in the shortest period possible” [Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), 1930, adopted at Geneva, June 28, 1930, as modified by the Final Articles Revision Convention, adopted at Montreal, October 9, 1946]. In 1957, the ILO explicitly incorporated debt bondage and serfdom within its definition of forced labor [International Labour Organisation, Conventions and Recommendations 1919-1966 (Geneva: ILO, 1966), p. 891. The ILO also passed the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105) in 1957; India, however, chose not to sign this convention].

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966

Article 8 of the ICCPR prohibits slavery and the slave trade in all their forms, servitude, and forced or compulsory labor. Article 24 entitles all children to “the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State” [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966) (entered into force March 23, 1976)].

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966

Article 7 of the ICESCR provides that States Parties shall “recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work.” Article 10 requires Parties to protect “children and young persons… from economic and social exploitation” [International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (entered into force January 3, 1976)].

Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

Article 32: “States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or… be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” [Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/125, U.N. GAOR, 44th Session, Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/44/736 (1989) (entered into force September 2, 1990)]. States are directed to implement and ensure these protections.


Article 35: “States Parties shall take all appropriate. . . measures to prevent the abduction, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form.” A significant portion of the bonded child laborers of India are trafficked from one state to another, and some are sold outright [Human Rights Watch/Asia, Rape for Profit: Trafficking of Nepali Girls and Women to India’s Brothels (Human Rights Watch: New York, 1995)].

Article 36: “States Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare” [Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/125, U.N. GAOR, 44th Session, Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/44/736 (1989) (entered into force September 2, 1990)].


Truth as defence for contempt of court


“Satyameva jayate”(may truth be victorious) is the sublime national motto, And yet every political or judicial philosophy, to the contrary is bete noire. In India, truth cannot be used as a defence in contempt of Court cases even though the Constitution holds truth as paramount. Despite many discourses and commissions recommending allowing truth as a defence in view of public interest, the legislators have remained silent and the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 has remained unchanged.

The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 basically separates contempt of Court into 2 categories, namely, Civil Contempt (ex facie curiae) and Criminal Contempt (in facie curiae).

Civil contempt occurs when a person disobeys a Court order and is subject to sanctions, such as a fine or imprisonment. The purpose of civil contempt is not only to enforce the law, but also to maintain public confidence in the judicial system, since the administration of justice would be undermined if the order of any Court of law could be disregarded with impunity.

Criminal contempt is when there is interference with or disruption of criminal or civil proceedings. Examples include yelling in the Courtroom, publishing matters which may prejudice the right to a fair trial (“trial by media”), or criticisms of courts or judges, which may undermine public confidence in the judicial system (“scandalizing the Court”).

Judges often use criminal contempt, indiscriminately at times against persons of the media who print matter about the judicial system’s workings and judges holding constitutionally high positions and corruption within the judiciary. This brings us to the issues that go along with contempt of Court. They are

• Does criminal contempt tread on the toes of Freedom of Press?

• Does it impinge upon the Freedom of Expression?

• Is there scope for misuse in the hands of judges?


All these questions lead back to the same question- why cannot truth be used as a defence? We who price truth above all are holding the judiciary above this sublime thought. No one is above the law. Not even the judiciary.


The Press is considered as one of the pillars of democracy. It has always gone hand in hand with the judiciary. The Freedom of the Press is a very important right for the protection of democracy. In the Constitution of the United States of America, Freedom of the Press is a fundamental right guaranteed under the First Amendment. This means that the Press can print anything, as long as it is not untrue and defamatory, thus making criminal contempt a difficult thing to prove.

This is not an exclusive right under the Constitution of India, but it may be taken as a right falling under the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a).

This makes us wonder again why Freedom of the Press has not been made a Right under the constitution but is to be understood as an expansion of Article 19(1)(a). The press is a very important tool and is a symbol of freedom. It was during the time of the British that there was curb on free press, by the Vernacular Press Act. Putting a curb on free press is only reverting back to those archaic times.

Even in England, the phrase “scandalizing the Court” has become obsolete. Truth is allowed as a defence in the interest of the public. Since our laws are based closely along the lines of the English law, such a change could also be implemented in India.

Due to the said Act, there has been troubled waters between the judiciary and the press.

In the landmark judgement, Perspective Publications v. State of Maharashtra , the Supreme Court said,

“… No attempt was made before the High Court to substantiate that the facts stated in the article were true or founded on correct data. It may be that truthfullness or factual correctness is a good defence in an action for libel, but in the law of contempt there are hardly any English or Indian cases in which such a defence has been recommended.

In Bathina Ramakrishna Reddy case there was discussion about the bona fides of the person responsible for the publication but that was done to dispose of the contention which had been raised on that point. The words,

“even if good faith can be held to be a defence at all in a proceeding for contempt shows that the cCourtdid not lay down affirmatively that good faith can be set up as a defence in contempt proceedings.

The importance of truth as defence in these cases was shown in cases involving Karnataka High Court judges being involved in sex scandals. Several publications reported it, and were held in contempt. It was held that during contempt proceeding, truth is not a defence.

However, apart from cases of contempt, the Supreme Court has always upheld the freedom of the press. A constitutional bench of the Supremem Court is going in to a plea of allowing truth as a defence.

On an appeal, the Supreme Court, then presided by Chief Justice V.N. Khare had openly observed that “truth is a defence”. Justice Khare also stated in open Court proceedings that “truth is a defence but nobody comes forward with the truth.”


It is generally felt that the existing law relating to criminal contempt is somewhat ambiguous and uncertain, giving major scope for indiscriminate use.

The jurisdiction to punish for contempt touches upon 2 important fundamental rights namely, Right to Personal Liberty and Right to Freedom of Expression. In a democracy such as India, these rights are everything. This country is not a dictatorshop. Therefore, when a right is guarenteed under the Constitution, everything else falls beneath it.

Then how can such liberties be blatantly be taken away by the courts, by saying that “truth is not a defence” as was stated in many many cases.

Many major international and regional human rights instruments on civil and political rights – all protect both freedom of speech and expression and the administration of justice. Freedom of expression is protected in Article 19 of ICCPR as-

Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers through any media of his choic.


It was therefore considered advisable to have the entire law on this subject reviewed by a special committee. In pursuance of this, a committee was\set up in 1961 under the chairmanship of H.N. Sanyal, the then solicitor general. the recommendations made by the committee, in light of the legislation of other countries as well took note of the importance given to freedom of speech given in the constitution and the need for safeguarding the status and dugnity of courts and interests of the administration of justice. The recommendations of the committee have been generally accepted by the state governments, union territory administrations, the Supreme Court, the high courts and the judicial commissioners.

An amending Bill seeks to amend S. 13 of the Act to allow, “justification by truth as a valid defence in any proceedings for contempt of Court.” Once this Bill is passed a person accused of contempt of Court can place on record the truth as a defence- a course the defendant cannot take now. Such an amendment was made in English law, giving the Press the freedom to tell people the truth.

There is a significant tension between the freedom of expression and the administration of justice because of the high public interest in maintaining and protecting both principles.



The Supreme Court issued notices to Arundathi Roy, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt following a dharna organized by the Narmada Bachao Andolan outside the Supreme Court on December 13, 2000. The bench comprising Ruma Pal and G.B. Pattnaik J.J., which heard the case concluded that the petition did not contain allegations that the participants in the dharna had picketed the gates of the Court complex preventing lawyers and litigants from entering or leaving the Court complex.

Such allegations, if made and substantiated, could have constituted criminal contempt under sub section 2 (c )(ii) and (iii) of the Act. The bench also agreed that procedurally the petition was deeply flawed and should not have come up before the Court for this reason. But all this did not stop the Supreme Court from issuing a fresh notice for criminal contempt on Arundathi Roy for three paragraphs in her affidavit, sentencing her to a day’s imprisonment and Rs. 2000 as fine.

“It can be said without fear of contradiction that no apex Court in any democracy in the world, governed by the rule of law would have held anyone guilty of contempt of Court for what she said in her affidavit.”

The Court took a contrary view while dealing with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, against whom it had initiated Court proceedings for his mouthpiece, Samna Thackeray quetioned the right of the judges who were hearing petitions alleging electoral corupt practises by him. He said that it was beyond the jurisdiction of th higest Court to judge his case, and he called muslims names. The Court asked him to apologise. Instead, his lawyr told the Court not to resort to the extreme step of preison, as it would cause national unrest. Later, the Court proceedings were dropped.

Such is the scope for misuse. Yet another flaw, is the fact that the judge in question has the power to sit in the proceedings for contempt himself. This is another serious anomaly that the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) has asked to do away with.

It has taken a long time for the Union government to brave the resistance of thejudiciary and attempt to amend the anomalous clauses in The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

The phrase, “scandalising the Court” has been greatly misusd by the judiciary, as illustrated above. With the amendment, in the government’s eye, it will make the judiciary more accountable.

Justice must be done. It must also be seen to have been done. Thus, higher constitutional obligattions now vestes on these judges to do complete justice which must be seen to have been done, no matter if the members of their own professions are in the thick of the controversies.

Truth is a very important objective. Our very own freedom struggle was based on this concept. Thus, the aim must be to discover the truth, even at the cost of uncovering corruption in the judiciary or causing mass unrest, for no doctrine in the law is above the doctrine of truth.