Our Constitution contains in part-III six fundamentals rights and the ‘right against exploitation’ is one of them. These rights are not only ‘fundamental’, but also ‘enforceable, because any aggrieved person can move the Supreme or a High Court under Art. 32 and Art. 226 respectively for their proper restoration.
Thus, the right against exploitation is a very important gift for Indian citizens, because it makes life worth living and meaningful. It is really a compliment to the charter of Freedom as enshrined in Art. 19 of the Constitution. Moreover, the Preamble to the Constitution has pledged to maintain ‘liberty, equality and justice’ to all. So, unless the exploitation of different types is wiped out root and branch, freedom, equality and justice can never prevail in the socio-political life. This is why the Founding Fathers very wisely inserted two Articles in this category.
Art. 23 (1) declares that ‘traffic in human being’, ‘beggar’ and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and that the violation of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law.
It is true that at the time of framing of the Constitution, there was hardly anything like ‘slavery’. But, as a stark reality, there were many areas is India where ‘untouchables’ were victims of exploitation in several ways. Moreover, in many places of the country a vicious practice existed under which the labourers who worked for a particular person could not leave him in order to work elsewhere.
Thus, they were, in a sense, the slaves of the masters. Above all, they were ill-paid and half-fed, because the rich employers lived like parasites upon the labour of these unfortunate workers. So, slavery was only abolished in name, but it existed in other heinous forms.
Similarly, ‘traffic in women’ was prevalent in different forms. Some of them were sold for money. Evils like the ‘Devadasee’ system under which women were forced to live in temples in order to satisfy the deities and, even, for the physical satisfaction of the priests existed. They were the life-long victims of physical lust and ugly immorality. This is why, our Constitution intended to do away with these sorts of exploitation of human beings.
DD Basu, has rightly held that instead of using the term ‘slavery’, our Constitution has wisely prohibited ‘traffic in human beings’, ‘forced labour’ and ‘beggar’. These words are surely more comprehensive expressions and they cover all sorts of exploitation of the weaker sections of the society. The Constitution has, thus, prohibited forced labour of any form which is similar to ‘beggar’ – an indigenous system of India. In other words, it has prohibited the act of compelling a person to render gratuitous service without or against his own will.
Due to this provision, the courts have held that even if an insufficient wage or remuneration is paid, the labour is surely a forced one. Thus, the basic idea is not to allow the state or anyone to a compel a person to work against his own will or in lieu of a poor payment.
However, clause (2) of the Article indicates that the state can use the compulsory service of any person for public purpose like military service or social welfare.
This is quite natural during a war or any other national calamity or emergency. The country may need the compulsory services of able-bodied persons for its safety, sovereignty and welfare. In such a case, a compulsory service does not, in any way, contravene the right guaranteed under Art. 23 (Dulal v. Howrah DM).
Art. 24 specially prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines or in any ‘hazardous jobs’. This is in reality in keeping with the concept of Human Rights and the basic norms of the United Nations. Of course, there are some laws like the Factory Act which had already prohibited such employment. But Art. 24 has made a more effective safeguard against the unwanted risks and hazards of childhood.
Thus, the Founding Fathers rendered stellar service in order to build up a state upon the basics of liberty, equality, justice and fraternity. Raj Bahadur, a member of the Constituent Assembly, claimed that their intention was to save the poor, down-trodden and dumb people from the exploitation of different types (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VI. P. 809).
Yet there are some serious loopholes in the total arrangement. First, the terms like ‘beggar’, ‘exploitation’ etc. have not been clearly defined by the Constitution. It is also not crystal clear whether the courts or the legislature would clarify them in a precise form.
Secondly, ‘traffic’ in human beings has been prohibited. But, prostitution as such has not been outlawed. So, a large number of helpless women are compelled to sell their body at every night for mere livelihood. Art. 23 have failed to give them an honourable means of subsistence.
Thirdly, the employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous jobs has been prohibited. But their employment in garages, hotels, restaurants and other tedious jobs has not been outlawed. Childhood is exclusively meant for acquiring education and not for earning money. But, due to man-made poverty, a large number of children have to come out in order to receive a little amount and that too in lieu of hard toil.
Fourthly, often the poor labourers have to work with nominal remuneration because the only alternative is starvation. Though, in some cases, the ‘minimum wages’, have been fixed, it remains meaningless for the workers of the unorganised sector.
In this sense, they are the helpless casualties of our civilisation, Harold J. Laski, the celebrated political scientist, had aptly remarked, ‘a society divided between rich and poor is like a house divided against itself’.
With the march of time, the gap is really galloping in our country. In spite of several Five Year Plans, some crores of people are living below the ‘poverty-line’. There are, of course, some Constitutional safeguards, but they are even now the poor victims of exploitation of the few.
The writer is an Author, Griffith Prizeman and former Reader, New Alipore College.