Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976
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This article is penned by Dipsa Prasanth from Army Institute of Law, Mohali. Through this article the author has critically anatomized the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

Introduction

From farms to industries, from fisheries to building houses, India has ruminated on labour-intensive methods as the most capacious recourse to meet its service and production needs. But with the invasion of technology, this trend has touched new focal points, with this the workers are more susceptible to oppression and ill-treatment, making them work for some extra hours to paying them low wages became common. Hence, it became a desideratum to solve this issue with legal remedies, which thereafter, paid way to ‘Labour Laws’ in India.

Furnishing workers with high-interest loans and making them work in undesired conditions for abated wages to pay off the debt, popularly known as bonded labour and recently it has become a customary practice, this fostered huge distress amongst the working class as they were victimized and made the sitting ducks of the employers vex. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976  came as a rescuing chevalier for the labourers who were coerced to work on bonds. This Act applies to the whole of India and has an overriding effect as the provisions of this Act will be consistent notwithstanding any inconsistencies. Section 1, Section 2 and Section 3 of this Act provides us with the above stated introduction.

Abolition of Bonded Labour System

It was uninhibitedly made intelligible that after the commencement of this Act there shall be a total veto on the practice of bonded labour. Every individual who was browbeaten to work on bonds will be unchained and set free. This Act also guarantees to fortify the virtue and rights of workers to not be forced again as bonded labourers. Section 4 and Section 5 of this act talks about the same.

Further, this Act makes it perspicuous and comprehensive that any custom, tradition, agreement, etc. based on which a person or dependant was made to work as bonded labourers, shall be held nullified and lapsed.

Extinguishment of Liability to Repay Bonded Debt

Liability to repay the bonded debt to stand extinguished (Section 6)

After the commencement of this Act, the liability of repayment of the debt would remain suspended and extinguished, hereby, the creditor can no longer force the worker to pay the debt. And there shall be no suit in any Court regarding the recovery of the same. 

Every attachment made before the commencement of this Act for recovery of the bonded debt would stand vacated and in the course of the same if any movable property is vested with the Court or any authority shall be recovered and given back to the workers. Similarly, the property of the bonded labour or dependants coercively captured by the creditor shall be given back and any bonded labour imprisoned shall be released.

Property to be liberated from lien, mortgage, etc. (Section 7)

Any property of the bonded labour which was confiscated by landlords and was under any mortgage, lien or other encumbrances shall be reinstated to the labourers and the debt related to the same shall be discharged. If there is any failure in returning the property then the labour has the right to procure profits as may be prescribed by the Court of lowest pecuniary jurisdiction.

This clause indeed appends more comfort to the labour laws of our country and indemnify  the property of bonded labourers from mortgage, lien etc.

Bonded labourers not to be shown the door (Section 8)

A person who was unchained and set free under this Act from any bonds, shall not be shown the door from residential complexes or premises that he was residing before the commission of this Act, by the creditor. If there is any such act of expulsion noticed, then the executive magistrate in charge of the subdivision under the jurisdiction of which the residential complex or premise falls shall pass an appropriate decree to restore the dwelling to the labourers. This facilitated the bonded labourers to regain their homes and stay rooted.

Creditor not to accept payment against the extinguished debt (Section 9)

The creditor by virtue of law is precluded from accepting payment against any bonded debt which has been withdrawn through this act. If such an act was committed then the creditor shall be punished with imprisonment of three years and fine.

In addition to this, the creditor shall have to submit the payment collected and this would subsequently be paid back to the bonded labour.

Implementing Authorities

Authorities designated for implementation (Section 10)

There is a hierarchy followed in implementing this Act from the State government to the officer in charge of implementation. Placed at the top of the hierarchy is the State government who confers the District Magistrate with the power to safeguard the provision of this Act. Further, the District Magistrate delegates the powers to an officer who will have the implementing powers at the local level. 

Thereby, this acts as a three-tier system of implementation which enhances the efficiency of this Act with better wings of administration.

The onus to ensure credit by District Magistrate and other (Section 11)

The District Magistrate appointed by the State government and the officer who is delegated with powers by the magistrate has the right to protect and cushion the rights of bonded labourers. This is done so that these labourers don’ t get back to a situation where they are forced to work on bonds by the creditors.

This includes promoting welfare schemes and measures in favour of the labour class and developing their skills to face this accelerating world.

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The onus of District Magistrate and officers authorised (Section 12)

It becomes the delegated duty of the District Magistrate and officers authorised by the District Magistrate to check on whether after the commencement of this Act was there any act of bonded labour committed anywhere within their local jurisdiction.

If there is a commission of any such forced or bonded labour, then the respective officers shall take appropriate action to veto such an Act and also protect the rights and dignity of the bonded labourers. Also, they shall promote welfare measures which would become torchbearers of the right, dignity, and voice of the labourers.

Vigilance Committee

Functions of the Vigilance Committee

The State government is responsible for appointing a vigilance committee at every district and sub-division as it may think fit through notifying in the Official Gazette. This is done to have a proper and well-maintained surveillance system. These provisions are mentioned under Section 13 and Section 14.

The vigilance committee at the district level:

  • Consists of a chairman who shall be a district magistrate or a person nominated  by him. 
  • There should be three members duly belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe to mark representation from these spheres. 
  • Two social workers of the district, not more than three members representing an official or non-official agency relating to rural development and a person marking representation of a financial institution of the district are the other members constituting the committee.

At the sub-division level:

  1. The committee constitutes a chairman who is a sub-divisional magistrate or a person nominated by him. 
  2. Three members duly belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe, two social workers, not more than three members representing an official or non-official agency relating to rural development nominated by district magistrate, a person marking representation of a financial institution of the sub-division, an officer mentioned under section 10 are the other members constituting the committee.

The district and sub-divisional magistrate shall provide the vigilance committee with procedural and other assistance. The entire procedure of the vigilance committee cannot be held nullified merely because there is any default in their constitution.

The main functions of the vigilance committee include advising the District Magistrate and other officials concerning the various provisions of this Act and their implementation, further they provide for the rehabilitation of bonded labour both socially and economically. They monitor functions of various banks in their respective sectors, surveil and conduct surveys of cognizable offences and defend suits instituted against any bonded labourers.

Burden of Proof (Section 15)

When there arises a question of a debt claimed by bonded labour then the burden of proof will lie on the creditor to prove that the debt is not a bonded debt.

Offences and Procedure for Trial

Punishment for enforcement of bonded labour (Section 16)

Deterrence and reformation are two pillars of the justice system of India which prevents an individual from committing further crimes, these pillars were used to strengthen this Act too. Here,  If any person after the commencement of this Act coerces any other person to render bonded labour, shall be punished with imprisonment for three years and also with a fine of rupees two thousand.

Punishment for the advancement of bonded debt (Section 17)

If any person advances any bonded debt after the commencement of this Act shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years and a fine of rupees two thousand. This depicts the advancement of bonded debt to be an offence which is punishable under this Act, thereby it prevents any creditor from the advancement of bonded debt.

Extracting bonded labour, punishments (Section 18)

If any person imposes by virtue of any culture, tradition imposes bonded or any other forced labour on any person shall be punished according to this Act. The punishment would extend to imprisonment for one year and a fine of one thousand rupees. The bonded labourer will be paid from this extracted fine i.e rupee five per day.

Punishment for omission or failure to restore possession of the property to bonded labourers (Section 19)

After the commencement of this Act all the property which was kept on bonds were to be given back to its original owner, If the person who is required to restore a property, fails to do so shall be punished with an imprisonment extending to a year or with a fine of rupees one thousand or with both. This restoration shall be done within thirty days. And the actual owner is given a sum from this recovered amount charging five rupees per day.

Abetment of an offence, punishable (Section 20)

Abetment of an offence in layman’s language means instigating any offence. Here, if any person instigates an offence shall be punished with the effect of an abetted crime. This is done irrespective of whether the instigated crime is committed or not.

Offences to be tried by Executive Magistrates (Section 21)

The Executive Magistrate is conferred with the powers of a Judicial Magistrate of the first or second class as per the case by the State government. These Executive Magistrates with the conferred powers of a Judicial Magistrate will conduct the trial accordingly.

Cognizance of offences (Section 22)

Every offence which is included under this Act can be issued with a bail that is offences covered here are bailable. And also an investigating officer can arrest the offender without a warrant. The offences covered here are thereby, categorised as cognizable offences.

Offences by companies (Section 23)

If the offence is committed by a company then all the people associated or were in charge of the company at the time of the commission of the offence would be held liable and will be punished accordingly. 

If the offence was committed by the neglect of any manager, officer or any other official then he or she will be liable and will be punished for the same.

Miscellaneous

Protection of action taken in good faith (Section 24)

Law always deems to protect individuals with good faith. Here, If the Central government, State government or the vigilance committee does any action for the betterment of this act then there shall be no suit or legal proceedings against them, as the action was done in good faith. As there was no malicious intention from the part of the above-mentioned authorities.

Jurisdiction of Civil Courts barred (Section 25)

A Civil Court usually looks into matters relating to civil issues that were not of criminal nature. Here, the Civil Courts do not have jurisdiction pertaining to cases under this act and thereby no Civil Court can issue an injunction relating to matters covered under this act. Thus the Civil Courts are barred to take in cases covered through this Act.

Power to make rules (Section 26)

The Central government has the power to make rules or laws under this act through a notification in the Official Gazette. Any such law made by the Central government will be discussed in the Houses of the Parliament and would be scrutinized. If there are any changes then such modification will be made as per the recommendation of both the houses and the law will be in effect only in the modified form.

Repeal and saving (Section 27)

The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Ordinance is repealed and any action done under this ordinance would be deemed to be done under the respective provision of this Act.

Conclusion

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 was a great milestone in abolishing the age-old system of bonded labour which was fast catching the society like a forest fire. The provisions of this Act uphold the dignity and solemnity of bonded labourers and also restore their property. This Act had provided them with new wings to fly high with the wind of rights and a platform to address their grievances. Now with this Act, the bonded labourers are free and unchained and are all set to face this accelerating world with its fullest might.


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