New Delhi, June 9: The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to examine complaints regarding alleged bonded labour in three brick kilns in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The direction was issued by a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Krishna Murari while hearing a plea by social worker Zahid Hussain who had claimed that 187 people have been forced into bonded labour in three brick kilns and are being made to do hard physical labour in inhuman conditions, The Hindustan Times reported.

The apex court also asked the human rights body to issue guidelines for protection and rehabilitation of bonded labourers in the light of their increased vulnerability due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NHRC had earlier considered the complaints and issued directions on May 11 to the district administrations of Rohtas in Bihar and Sambhal in UP, where the three brick kilns are situated, to conduct inquiry and submit reports but no action was taken by the district authorities prompting Hussain to approach the apex court on May 25.

When the matter first came up for hearing before the Supreme Court on June 3, the top court had issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar governments and also asked the District Magistrates of Rohtas and Sambhal to submit their reports regarding the allegations.

The court after considering the action taken reports by the two states on Tuesday sent the matter back to the NHRC while granting petitioner the liberty to move the Supreme Court again in case of delay by NHRC in dealing with the matter.

Two of the three brick kilns are in Rohtas district in Bihar (in Bharkol and Dhaudarh villages) and one is in Sambhal district in UP. According to the petition, the Bharkol brick kiln has 41 bonded labourers including 14 children while the Dhaudarh kiln has 84 such workers including 27 dependent children. The one at Sambhal has 62 bonded labourers. All the 187 people are from scheduled caste communities.

Hussain had alleged that the labourers at the brick kiln are prevented from leaving the facility on their own, denied their statutory minimum wage, physically and verbally abused, and even the women and children are often made to work long shifts of over 12 hours.

“One of the labourers (at the Dhaudarh brick kiln) was beaten on his head with a stick and left bleeding merely for asking for his statutory wages. Three victims who are pregnant, are among such labourers, who are not being provided any medical assistance,” the petitioner alleged.

The petition filed through advocate Srishti Agnihotri said that after the NHRC passed orders directing inquiry, the district administration of Sambhal through the labour enforcement officer, conducted a very perfunctory enquiry of all the 17 families. Despite the spot enquiry, the administration of Sambhal District asked the laborers to continue to remain at the brick kiln at the mercy of the brick kiln owners/traffickers.

“The district administration has not made sufficient arrangements to move the labourers to an alternate safe location, arrange for their release certificates, ensure the payment of wages and access to healthcare and ration for the labourers”, senior counsel Anitha Shenoy said.

As regards the two brick kilns in Rohtas district, the petitioner alleged that the district administration did not take any steps towards conducting spot enquiry and the laborers including pregnant women, are forced to work long hours under terrible conditions and without statutory wages.

Hussain also sought specific guidelines to protect, rehabilitate and repatriate bonded labourers during the Covid-19 pandemic. He claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant nation-wide lockdown has intensified the 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. It has also pushed persons who were not originally working in a state of bondage, into a state of bonded labour,” the plea said.

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