THE GIST of Editorial for UPSC Exams : 12 May 2020 (Equal freedom and forced labour (The Hindu)) Primary tabs

Equal freedom and forced labour (The Hindu)

Mains Paper 2: Polity
Prelims level: Labour laws in India
Mains level: Historical context of labour laws and it process of development


  • Soon after Independence, while the Constitution of a free India was being drafted, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chairperson of the Drafting Committee, was asked to prepare a note on the idea of Fundamental Rights.
  • In a terse document, B.R. Ambedkar observed that thus far, the purpose of Constitutions had been to limit state power, in order to preserve the freedom of the individual.
  • But this was too narrow an understanding of freedom, because it ignored the fact that often, it was private parties — individuals and corporations — that exercised great sway over the economic and social life of the nation.
  • B.R. Ambedkar therefore argued that fundamental rights must also “eliminate the possibility of the more powerful having the power to impose arbitrary restraints on the less powerful by withdrawing from the control he has over the economic life of the people” — or, more euphemistically, to tackle the “the dictatorship of the private employer”.

Labour rights:

  • B.R. Ambedkar, a long-time advocate for the rights of labour, and who had been instrumental in the passage of an eight-hour working day a few years before, was writing as part of a long-standing intellectual and political tradition.
  • Labour movements had been key ............................................


How do we understand the concepts of “force” and “freedom” in the backdrop of this history?

  • A certain narrow understanding would have it that I am only “forced” to do something if there is a gun to my head or a knife at my throat. In all other circumstances, I remain “free”.
  • As we all know, however, that is a very impoverished understanding of freedom.
  • It ignores the compulsion that is exerted by serious and enduring differences of power, compulsion that may not take a physical form, but instead, have a social or economic character that is nonetheless as severe.
  • In such circumstances, people can be placed in positions where they have no genuine choices left. As K.T. Shah, another member of the Constituent Assembly, famously wrote, “necessitous men are not free men”.

Judicial stand:

  • In 1983, the Supreme Court understood this point. The Court was called upon to address the exploitation of migrant and contract labourers, who had been put to work constructing the Asian Games Village.
  • In a landmark judgment, PUDR vs. Union of India, the Court held that the right against forced labour included the right to a minimum wage.
  • It noted that often, migrant and contract labourers had “no choice but to accept any work that came [their] way, even if the remuneration offered... is less than the minimum wage”.
  • Consequently, the Court held that “the .........................................


Aims of labour laws:

  • The purpose of labour laws, which arose out of a long period of struggle (often accompanied by state-sanctioned violence against workers), has always been to mitigate this imbalance of power.
  • The shape and form of these laws has, of course, varied over time and in different countries, but the basic impulse has always remained the same: in B.R. Ambedkar’s words, to secure the “rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, in both the public and the private spheres.
  • In some countries, the path chosen has been to give workers a stake in private governance, through strong trade union laws and mandatory seats for labour in the governing boards of firms (“co-determination”).
  • In other countries (such as India), the path has been to create a detailed set of laws, covering different aspects of the workplace, and depend upon State agencies for their enforcement.

The Indian situation:

  • India’s labour law structure has been criticised on multiple counts.
  • It is argued that it sets up a labour bureaucracy that is prone to corruption; that the adjudicatory mechanisms are inefficient;
  • the rights that labour laws grant are effectively submerged in a creaking judicial system, thus providing no real relief;
  • that the system creates an ...................................................


Way forward:

  • What is very clear, however, is that the steps being taken by various State governments, ostensibly under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, are grossly unconstitutional: various State governments are in the process of removing labour laws altogether (for a set period of time).
  • What this means, in practice, is that the economic power exercised by capital will be left unchecked.
  • In his Note on Fundamental Rights, B.R. Ambedkar pointed out that this would be nothing other than the freedom to “increase hours of work and reduce rates of wages”.


  • Ironically, an increase in working hours and a removal of minimum wages are two proposals strongly under discussion.
  • If the Constitution is to remain a charter of freedom, however, it must be equal freedom — and that must be the yardstick from which we measure proposed legal changes in the shadow of COVID-19.

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Prelims Questions:

Q1. With reference to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), consider the following statements:
1. It is the only centre in the country which is pooling the samples for doing testing of COVID-19.
2. It was established in 1977 and is located in New Delhi.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?
(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Answer: ........................................


Mains Questions:
Q1. The steps being taken by ...............................................................?