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Manual scavenging case: Delhi high court reprimands state govt for failing to provide relief to rescued bonded labourer

(Representative image)
Date : 26/09/2018

Nirmal Gorana & Anr vs State NCT of Delhi & Ors
Writ petition (Crl) 3177/2017

In 2007, HRLN’s initiave against bonded labour and trafficking, the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour (NCCEBL) rescued a Dwarka jhuggi resident, Rehana Begum. She had been forced to work as a bonded labourer doing manual scavenging, after having being lured by a contractor who had promised her employment as a sanitation worker at a public toilet.

She had been working as a cleaner in a DDA park complex toilet in Dwarka’s Sector 7 since 2014. The contractor, a Sonu Kumar, had given her an ‘advance’ of Rs 5,000, but after hiring her, forced her to work for long hours without regular salary or adequate cleaning and safety equipment. In February 2017, her husband wrote to NCCEBL after which social activist and NCCEBL national convenor, Nirmal Gorana met Rehana and brought the matter to the notice of District Magistrate (DM) and Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Dwarka.

The same month, the SDM raided the DDA complex on February 8, 2017, found her cleaning the complex and took her statement. However, shockingly, the SDM eventually ruled in favour of her employer. NCCEBL then filed a case with NHRC against SMD’s ruling, after which the rights body issued a notice to the Delhi government’s chief secretary. On April 17, 2017, the SDM’s office finally passed an order declaring Rehana Begum a “bonded labourer” and granted her a release certificate. It also issued directions to pay her an interim relief amount of Rs 20,000 and to file an FIR under provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act against all the accused persons — including the DDA chief engineer. However, the DCP (South-West District), after conducting an enquiry, claimed in its report that Rehana Begum was not a bonded labourer, and, therefore, did not file an FIR.

In the meantime, when Rehana approached her employer asked for wages, she was beaten up. She and her family also began to get increasingly harassed by the employer and his associates. After being informed of this, in July, 2017, NCCEBL sent a mail to the DCP pressing for the filing of an FIR and asking for legal action to be taken against the accused, who had been continuously harassing Rehana Begum and her family.

After months of inaction from the administration, HRLN in November, 2017, filed a case and obtained an order from the Delhi high court directing the state to investigate her complaint and to grant her the rehabilitation she was entitled to under the Bonded Labour Act.

However, the Dwarka administration only gave Rehana Begum an interim compensation of Rs 20,000, and not the remaining reliefs as directed by the High Court. The NCCEBL also, through a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of South West District, asked for the compliance of the court’s order – but to no avail. HRLN then filed a contempt petition against the State of NCT and other respondents for disobeying the court’s directions, and drew the court’s notice to the their inaction even after eight months.

In the last hearing in the case, on September 25, 2018, the court took strong exception to the state’s apathy and its arguments, where they contested Rehana Begum’s status as a bonded labour and questioned whether the issuance of a release certificate by the SDM proved at all that she was a bonded labourer. The state also sought to downplay the SDM’s order declaring her as a bonded labourer. Reprimanding the state’s counsel, the court gave the respondents six weeks’ time to complete its investigation and grant Rehana the remaining reliefs.

We will upload the Delhi high court’s order very soon.

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