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The Supreme Court today directed a petitioner who raised the issue of bonded labourer exploitation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to approach the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) [Zahid Hussain versus State of Uttar Pradesh and ors].
The issue arose after the District Magistrates of Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh and Rohtas in Bihar failed to take prompt action to help 187 bonded labourers working in brick kilns.
This, despite a May 11 order from the National Human Rights Commission directing the state governments to take action.
On May 4, the Supreme Court had issued formal notice to both the states and ordered the District Magistrates to file detailed status reports on the action they had taken to free the victims.
The Supreme Court Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Justice Krishna Murari received the action taken report by the states of UP and Bihar.
The Apex Court had noted that if there is any delay by the NHRC, then a fresh writ petition can be filed in the Supreme Court.
The direction came in a writ petition filed by social activist Zahid Hussein, represented by Senior Advocate Anitha Shenoy and Advocate Srishti Agnihotri.
Hussain's petition stated that the victims included pregnant women, children and even infants. The victims work in three kilns in the harshest conditions in extreme heat.
Senior Advocate Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the UP government, submitted that release certificates were issued in Sambhal district to the labourers, but 12 of them were not released due to some issues.
Shenoy insisted that the Supreme Court direct the NHRC to issue guidelines, so that the petitioners do not have to knock on the Court's doors again. The petition states,
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant nation-wide lock-down have intensified every factor of vulnerability that bonded labourers are ordinarily subjected to. From increased isolation to restriction of movement, lack of food supplies, lack of healthcare, non-payment of wages and restricted access to law enforcement authorities, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely exacerbated the abusive conditions that bonded labourers are trapped in."
The petition 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.