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Article 23 - Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labor

Updated: Apr 21

Article 23 and 24 constitute a group under the head ‘Right against Exploitation Exploitation is opposed to the dignity of the individual proclaimed in the Preamble and to provisions of Art. 39(e) and (f). 

Article 23 indian constitution
Labor and Fundamental Right


The two rights guaranteed under this head seem to supplement the ‘right to freedom’, as the real object of these two rights is nothing more than to protect the personal freedom of the citizens. 

Enforcement by Parliament

One may partially agree with the view of Prof.K.V. Rao: “Indeed, the Makers had displayed considerable ingenuity in coining a name for them (Rights against Exploitation), for they confer no right on any one, nor an enforceable punishment. 

They ought to have been in Part |V, for the Parliament has to make a law prescribing a punishment which it could have done under Arts. 15 and 19(6).

Applicability to Both Citizens and Non-citizens

Notably, Article 23 provides protection not just to citizens but to any person residing within the territory of India, making its protection expansive and inclusive.

J.C. Johari, The Constitution of India — A Politico-Legal Study, Write that Art 23 protects the individual not only against the State but also private citizens Under Art, 35, the Parliament is authorised to make laws for punishing acts prohibited by this article.

National Human Rights Commission vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh & Anr (1996) [AIR 1996 SC 1234]

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court of India addressed the rights of the Chakma refugees in the State of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chakmas, originally from Bangladesh, had been residing in Arunachal Pradesh, and faced threats of eviction and violence from local communities. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) filed a petition seeking protection for the Chakmas against these threats and to ensure their basic human rights were respected.

Key Points from the Judgment:

  • Protection of Fundamental Rights for Non-Citizens: The Supreme Court reiterated that certain fundamental rights, including the right against exploitation under Article 23, are applicable to non-citizens as well. The Court emphasized that the Constitution guarantees these rights to every person, not just Indian citizens, thereby upholding the principle of universality of human rights.

  • State's Responsibility: The Court highlighted the responsibility of the State to protect the life and liberty of every human being, regardless of citizenship status. The judgment underscored that the State cannot discriminate against individuals, especially those in vulnerable situations, in the protection of fundamental rights.

  • Human Dignity and Freedom: The decision was pivotal in reaffirming the importance of human dignity and freedom, principles underlying Article 23. The Court's interpretation stressed that these principles are universal and not confined within the boundaries of citizenship.

Constitutional Provision

Article 23 of the Indian Constitution is one of the provisions aimed at protecting the individual's right against exploitation. Article 23 of the Indian Constitution is one of the provisions aimed at protecting the individual's right against exploitation.

Article 23: Traffic in Human Beings, Begar, Forced Labour

Art. 23(1) says: “Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. 

Art. 23(2) Says, Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from imposing compulsory service for public purposes, and in imposing such service the State shall not make any discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste or class or any of them.”

Article 23(1) prohibits “traffic in human beings and begar and other forced labour”. Traffic in human beings and forced labour militates against human- dignity 

‘Traffic in human beings' — It means to deal in men and women like goods such as to sell, let out or otherwise dispose of them off. It includes immoral traffic in Women or girls or subjecting children to immoral or such like practices. 

For this sake. The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act, 1956 had been put in operation. The validity of this Act has been upheld by laying down that it is not inconsistent with the fundamental right to carry on a business, trade or profession (Shama v State of U.P. AIR 1959 All. 57).

Constitutional Assembly Debates

Initially, the provision that became Article 23 was introduced as Draft Article 17 during the debates. It aimed to abolish human trafficking and forced labor, reflecting the Assembly's commitment to human dignity and social justice.

key aspect that emerged from the debates was the emphasis on the universality of this provision. The members of the Constituent Assembly were clear that the protection against exploitation should apply to everyone, irrespective of citizenship, and this principle was reflected in the inclusive wording of Article 23.

There were discussions regarding the necessity of compulsory service for public purposes under certain conditions, which led to the inclusion of Clause (2) in Article 23. The debates highlighted the need for such a provision to be non-discriminatory and only implemented under specific circumstances deemed in the public interest.

Broad Interpretation

The Supreme Court of India has interpreted Article 23 broadly to include within its ambit not only physical force but also any form of coercion arising from compulsion of economic circumstances which leaves no choice of alternatives.

Devadis would be considered ‘Trafficked’’

Devadasis are also covered under the term “traffic in human beings". Though ‘'slavery’ is not expressly mentioned, there is no doubt that the expression ‘traffic in human beings’ would cover it (Dubar v Union of India AIR 1952 Cal. 496). It may be noted that under Sec. 370, IPC, whoever imports, exports, removes, buys, sells or disposes off any person as a slave shall be punished with imprisonment 

Children of prostitutes have a right to equality of opportunity, dignity, care, protection and rehabilitation so as to be part of the mainstream of social life (Gaurav Jain v UOI AIR 1997 SC 3021). 

The case highlights the practice of prostitution prevalent in the States of A.P., Kamataka and Maharashtra under the veil of customary practice of Devdasis, Jogins and Venkatasins and its evil effects. 

Taking note of the relevant provisions of the Constitution, viz. Arts. 23,21,13,14 15,16,38,39(f), 46,32 etc and the provisions of Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and Juvenile Justice Act, 1986

Prostitutes have right to rehabilitate

The Supreme Court came to the conclusion that prostitutes have a right to enter the social mainstream and their children have right to equality of opportunity, dignity, care, protection and rehabilitation so as to be part of the mainstream of social life without any pre-stigma attached on them.

The Apex Court, in the above case, made suggestions like: Children of prostitutes, including ‘child prostitutes’, should be treated as ‘neglected juveniles’ as defined in Juvenile Justice Act and no stigma should be attached to them; 

They should be rescued from the “red-light areas” and shifted to “juvenile homes for a short stay to relieve them from the trauma they may have suffered, and thereafter they should be rehabilitated in an appropriate manner; It is State's mandatory obligation to establish juvenile homes; and, Union of India and State Governments were to evolve, in a Ministerial-level conference, procedure and principles regarding rescue and rehabilitation of the prostitutes for efficacious enforcing of their fundamental rights and human rights.

Defining ‘Begar’

‘Begar and other forced labour - 'Begar’ means forcing a person to do some work against his will and that on the basis of non-payment or grossly inadequate payment.

However, this condition shall not apply to a case where forced labour is a part of punishment as in a prison house or some such work forms part of the service conditions or agreement.

Under the old zamindari system, the tenants were sometimes forced to render free service to their landlords. This was called begar. 

The sagri or hali system in Some parts of Rajasthan is an example of forced labour: under it. a creditor giving a loan to a debtor on the condition that until the loan is repaid with interest, the debtor (or any of his family members) is to render labour of personal service to the creditor.

In Khaosan Tangkhul v Simirei Shailei (AIR 1961 Manipur 1), the custom which seemed to prevail in the State was that each househf:lder in a village would have to offer one day's free labour to the headman Of the Village. 

The custom was held as being violative of Art. 23. It has been held that even if some remuneration is paid, the labour may be a forced one (PUDR v UOI AIR 1982 SC 1473).

Bonded Labour is ‘Forced Labour’

‘Bonded labour’ is  form of forced labour that is forbidden. In the Asiad Case' (PUDR v UOI AIR 1982 SC 1473), the Supreme Court gave a wide meaning to the word ‘force.’ 

Force is not mere physical or legal force but also force arising from the compulsion of economic circumstances. The person in want has no choice. He may be compelled to work for a wage less than the minimum. He may even agree to pay a part of his wages to a middleman. 

It may be noted that, as a result of Art. 23, as many as 12 Acts sanctioning forced labour, under certain circumstances, became void on the enactment of the Constitution. 

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, has brought freedom within the reach of many persons who were being forced to work, alongwith their family in some cases, by contractors. 

Compulsory service for public purposes

It may be noted that Art. 23(2) do not prohibit the State from imposing compulsory service public purposes e.g. social or for military service in times of emergencies like war, floods, etc. or assisting the police in trying circumstances. 

This clause allows the State to impose compulsory service for public purposes, ensuring that in enforcing such service, no discrimination will be made on the grounds based only on religion, race, caste, or class. 

This provision provides a necessary exception to the prohibition of forced labor, acknowledging circumstances where individuals may be required to contribute to community service or duties of a public nature.

It has been held that conscription for social service,as for  instance spread of literacy, is a public purpose (State v Jorawar AIR 1853 A.P. 18). 

Minimum Wage Mandatory

Even when the State undertakes famine relief work it cannot pay less than the minimum wage. The State cannot take advantage of their helplessness. If it does  so it would be violative of Art. 23 (Sanjit Roy v State of Rajasthan AIR 1983 SC 328). 

In State of Gujarat v Hon'ble High Court of Gujarat (1998) 7 SCC 392, held that exaction of hard labour from convicted prisoners is not forced labour, but they are entitled to equitable wages. 

Thomas, J. held that if exaction of hard labour is without payment of wages or even payment of wages but below the minimum wages, it would amount to forced labour prohibited under Art, 23(1).

But protection under cl.(1) is subject to exceptions contained in cl.(2) of Art. 23 regarding ‘imposition of compulsory service by the State for public purpose.’ 

Since according to modem thinking, main objective of punishment is ‘reformation’, which is a Public purpose be saved imposition of hard labour on the convicted prisoner on Payment of minimum wages would serve the public purpose of his reformation and rehabilitation and hence would be saved under cl.(2). 

But under-trials, persons sentenced  to simple imprisonment and those detained under ; preventive detention Act cannot be asked to do manual work. Such persons ma may be permitted to do any work of their choice.

Wadhwa, J. (partly dissenting) held that putting a convicted prisoner to hard labour cannot be equated with ‘begar’ or other similar forms of forced labour’ and there is no violation of Art. 23(1); nor can it be said to be in the nature of compulsory Service imposed by the -State for public purpose within cl.(2). 

Hence even non- Payment of any wages for the hard labour done by the prisoner as part of sentence Of rigorous imprisonment would not be violative of Art. 23. Wages are payable only Under the provisions of the Prisons Act. Though prison reforms are a must and Prisoners doing hard labour are now being paid wages, but the message must be loud and clear that ‘crime does not pay'.

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