“We are praised when we rule for the rich, slammed when we uphold rights of poor”
[A sewage worker employed on contract by Delhi Jal Board died of poisonous fumes while cleaning a drain. When an NGO moved the Delhi HC for compensation, the DJB tried to claim, as usual, that his death due to lack of safety masks and equipment was not their responsibility, but only the contractors. The HC ordered DJB to pay compensation and ensure safety norms. The DJB filed an appeal in the SC against an HC verdict, questioning the NGO’s right to file a PIL; suggesting that the HC verdict was a case of ‘judicial overreach’; and questioning the quantum of compensation ordered to be paid by the HC. The SC Bench of G S Singhvi and Asok Kumar Ganguly passed a verdict strongly upholding the rights of unorganised workers. It held the HC’s calculation of compensation to be meagre and inadequate. It maintained that the government agencies had the responsibility of ensuring that contractors provided safety equipment and upheld other legal rights of sewage workers.]
The appeal is also illustrative of how the State apparatus is insensitive to the safety and well being of those who are, on account of sheer poverty, compelled to work under most unfavourable conditions and regularly face the threat of being deprived of their life.
...neither the law makers nor those who have been entrusted with the duty of implementing the laws enacted for welfare of the unorganized workers have put in place appropriate mechanism for protection of persons employed by or through the contractors to whom services meant to benefit the public at large are outsourced by the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities like the appellant for doing works, which are inherently hazardous and dangerous to life nor made provision for payment of reasonable compensation in the event of death.
...(The petition seeks to) to highlight the plight of sewage workers many of whom died on account of contemptuous apathy shown by the public authorities and contractors engaged by them and even private individuals/enterprises in the matter of providing safety equipments to those who are required to work under extremely odd conditions.
...At the threshold, we deem it necessary to erase the impression and misgivings of some people that by entertaining petitions filed by social action groups/activists/workers and NGOs (on behalf of the poor and deprived)... the superior Courts exceed the unwritten boundaries of their jurisdictions.
... In last 63 years, Parliament and State Legislatures have enacted several laws for achieving the goals set out in the preamble but their implementation has been extremely inadequate and tardy and benefit of welfare measures enshrined in those legislations has not reached millions of poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged sections of the society...
The most unfortunate part of the scenario is that whenever one of the three constituents of the State i.e., judiciary, has issued directions ...for implementation of the laws enacted by the legislature for the benefit of the have-nots, a theoretical debate is started by raising the bogey of judicial activism or judicial overreach and the orders issued for benefit of the weaker sections of the society are invariably subjected to challenge in the higher Courts. In large number of cases, the sole object of this litigative exercise is to tire out those who genuinely espouse the cause of the weak and poor.
(Quoting a previous SC verdict):
“The rule of law does not mean that the protection of the law must be available only to a fortunate few...The poor too have civil and political rights and the rule of law is meant for them also, though today it exists only on paper and not in reality. If the sugar barons and the alcohol kings have the fundamental right to carry on their business and to fatten their purses by exploiting the consuming public, have the [dalits] belonging to the lowest strata of society no fundamental right to earn an honest living through their sweat and toil? The former can approach the courts with a formidable army of distinguished lawyers paid in four or five figures per day and if their right to exploit is upheld against the Government under the label of fundamental right, the courts are praised for their boldness and courage and their independence and fearlessness are applauded and acclaimed. But, if the fundamental right of the poor and helpless victims of injustice is sought to be enforced by public interest litigation, the so-called champions of human rights frown upon it as waste of time of the highest court in the land, which, according to them, should not engage itself in such small and trifling matters.
...civil and political rights, priceless and invaluable as they are for freedom and democracy, simply do not exist for the vast masses of our people.
... Those who are decrying public interest litigation do not seem to realise that courts are not meant only for the rich and the well-to-do, for the landlord and the gentry, for the business magnate and the industrial tycoon, but they exist also for the poor and the down-trodden, the have-nots and the handicapped and the half-hungry millions of our countrymen. So far the courts have been used only for the purpose of vindicating the rights of the wealthy and the affluent. It is only these privileged classes which have been able to approach the courts for protecting their vested interests. It is only the moneyed who have so far had the golden key to unlock the doors of justice.”
... The State and its agencies/instrumentalities cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to put in place effective mechanism for ensuring safety of the workers employed for maintaining and cleaning the sewage system. The human beings who are employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who may not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes. The State and its agencies/instrumentalities or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs. The argument of choice and contractual freedom is not available to the appellant...
... the refusal of this Court to pass an order of compensation in favour of the petitioner will be doing mere lip-service to his fundamental right to liberty which the State Government has so grossly violated...
...we direct the appellant to ensure compliance (with the Delhi HC order) within a period of two months from today and submit a report to the High Court. The appellant shall also ensure that these directions are complied with by the contractors engaged by it for execution of work relating to laying and maintenance of sewer system within the area of its jurisdiction. A report to this effect be also submitted to the High Court within two months. Additionally, we direct that in future the appellant shall ensure that the directions already given by the High Court and which may be given hereafter are made part of all agreements which may be executed with contractors/private enterprises for doing work relating to sewage system.
The directions contained in the preceding paragraph do not imply that the appellant and other agencies/instrumentalities of the State like New Delhi Municipal Council, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation are not required to comply with the directions given by the High Court. Rather, they too shall have to submit similar reports.