In Crim. Appeal Nos. 1603-1604 of 2022-SC- For attracting Sec.16 of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, prosecution must establish beyond reasonable doubt that accused forced & compelled victim to render bonded labour
Justices A.S. Bopanna & Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha [19-09-2022]



Tulip Kanth

New Delhi, September 22, 2022: In a case where a complaint was received that six workers were working as bonded labourers in a Tamil Nadu Rice Mill, the Supreme Court has acquitted the appellant-accused, whose father was running the mill, but directed him to pay Rs 50,000 to the affected workers while also clarifying that the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 is a social welfare legislation.


Referring to the judgments in  Swarup v. King Emperor, Anwar Ali and Anr. vs. State of Himachal Pradesh; Dhanapal vs. State by Public Prosecutor, Madras, Chandrappa and Ors. vs. State of Karnataka, elucidating the principles governing consideration in cases of appeals against acquittals, the Division Bench of Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha said,“ The conviction is a non sequitur and the name of his Rice Mill certainly cannot be a proof beyond reasonable doubt to convict and sentence him for three years.”


As per the prosecution’s case, upon a complaint received at his office, the District Revenue Officer, Chengalpattu raided a Rice Mill in Tamil Nadu, and found 6 people working in the Rice Mill as bonded labourers. He issued an order to release the labourers. Following the raid, an FIR came to be filed against the first Accused-appellant and his father, who died during the pendency of proceedings.


After completing the formalities, the Sessions Judge framed charges against Accused for offences under Section 16 and 17 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976  and also under Section 3(1)(x) of the Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Stating that there was no evidence connecting the Appellant to the Rice Mill, the Sessions Court acquitted him of all the charges. The appeal against this order was filed by one Mrs. Manjula before the High Court whereby the appellant was convicted and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for 3 years. He was also ordered to pay compensation of Rs 50,000 to each of the victim.Aggrieved thereby, the accused-appellant filed the appeal.


The Bench considered the fact that in the FIR, though the name of the Appellant was shown as the second accused, with the first accused being his deceased father, there was nothing as to how and in what manner the Appellant was involved in the commission of the offence. The absence of any allegations against him must be seen in the context of his submission from the very beginning that he is not residing with his father, the Bench added.


It was noticed by the Bench that the complainant had made specific allegations against the father of the Appellant for his abusive behaviour but there was no reference to the Appellant for having compelled bonded labour or advanced any bonded debt.Not only this but the District Revenue Officer only mentioned the raid conducted at the Rice Mill on the basis of a complaint, but did not mention anything about the Appellant. Even the Investigation Officer had nothing to say against the Appellant.


“For attracting the provision of Section 16 of the Act, the prosecution must establish that an accused has forced and compelled the victim to render bonded labour. This force and compulsion must be at the instance of the accused and the prosecution must establish the same beyond reasonable doubt”, the Bench explained.


The Bench was of the view that  the reasoning adopted by the High Court that the Rice Mill belonged to the Appellant’s father and also that it had the name of Appellant by itself couldnot be the basis for convicting the Appellant for commission of the offence under Sections 16 and 17. 


Concluding from such aspects that there was no evidence to establish the culpability of the Appellant so as to find him guilty, the Bench held that the High Court was not justified in reversing the judgment of acquittal of the Appellant and convicting and sentencing him.However, the Top Court did mention that considering the incident having occurred in the factory owned by the deceased Accused-appellant’s father, there was certain evidence to show that the incident has in fact occurred.


Notwithstanding the Appellant not being culpable, he being the son of the first Accused, had succeeded to the business. Hence, he could be burdened with the financial liability even though the concept of vicarious liability does not arise in criminal prosecution and even if it be dehors the requirement of Section 357 of Cr.P.C, the Bench held.


Thus,the Bench acquitted the Appellant of all the charges but directed him to pay an amount of Rs 50,000 to each of the workmen within a period of three months.

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