Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India

CourtSupreme Court of India
Citation1995 AIR 922, 1995 SCC (3) 42
Year1995
PetitionerCERC
RespondentUnion of India & Others
JudgeJustice K. Ramaswamy
Justice A.M Ahmadi (Chief Justice)
Justice M.M Punchhi
Acts1. Constitution of India
2. Employees State Insurance Act
3. Workmen Compensation Act
4. Factories Act
Sections/ArticlesArticle 21
Article 38(1)
Article 39 (e)
Article 42
Article 43
Article 48A

Introduction

In this case it has been observed that occupational accidents and diseases remain the most appalling human tragedy of modem industry and one of its most serious forms of economic waste. Occupational health hazards and diseases to the workmen employed in asbestos industries are of our concern in this writ petition filed under Article 32 of the Constitution by way of public interest litigation at the behest of the petitioner, an accredited Organisation. At the inception of filing the writ petition in the year 1986, though it highlighted the lacuna in diverse provisions of law applicable to the asbestos industry, due to orders of-this Court passed from time to time, though wide gaps have been bridged by subordinate legislation, yet lot more need to be done. So, the petitioner seeks to fill in the yearning gaps and remedial measures for the protection of the health of the workers engaged in mines and asbestos industries with adequate mechanism for and diagnosis and control of the silent killer disease ” asbestosis”.

Background

Asbestos and dust of asbestos cause asbestosis, bronchogenic carcinoma, and various other health-related problems. The signs and symptoms of asbestosis are similar to those caused by other diffuse interstitial fibrosis of the lung. Increased breathlessness on exertion is usually the first symptom, sometimes associated with aching or transient sharp pains; in the chest. A cough is not usually present except in the late stages when distressing paroxysms occur. Increased sputum is not. present unless there is bronchitis, the result of smoking. The onset of symptoms is usually slow and the subject may have forgotten having any contact with asbestos. Persistent dull chest pain and haemoptysis indicate the need to investigate further the diagnosis of bronchial or mesothelial cancer. A concerned social interest group Consumer Education and Research centre moved the apex court for appropriate ‘directions against the asbestos industries. The Court instead of banning the industry, as has been the case in the West, issued a number of meaningful directions to the industry and the state and central governments.

Facts

The Consumer Education and Research Centre filed several writ petitions against the State of India under Article 32 (obligation to promote social justice and welfare of the people) of the Indian Constitution regarding the protection of workers against the occupational health hazards and diseases associated with asbestos exposure. The petitioner applied for remedial measures to fill in legislative gaps, to require mandatory compensation for occupational hazards and diseases or death to employees who did not qualify for such coverage under the existing Acts (Employees State Insurance Act and the Workmen Compensation Act), to provide adequate mechanisms for diagnosing and controlling asbestosis (such as mandatory mechanisms to measure levels of asbestos in workplaces coupled with expert panels to established permissible levels of asbestos), to establish a committee to recommend whether the dry process can be completed replaced by the wet, to keep health records of each workman for requisite minimum periods, to provide compulsory health insurance for employees, and finally to award compensation to those suffering from asbestos.

Issues

  1. Whether the fundamental rights of the workers guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India violated?
  2. Whether replacement of asbestos by other material believed to be safer?

Argument Advanced

  1. The petitioner humbly submits that the expression ‘life’ assured in Art.21 of the Constitution does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning which includes the right to livelihood, better standard of life, hygienic conditions in workplace and leisure. In Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation[1], this Court held that no person can live without the means of living i.e. means of livelihood. If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation. Such deprivation would not only denude the life of its effective content of meaningfulness but it would make life impossible to live, leave aside what makes life liveable. The right to life with human dignity encompasses within its fold, some of the finer facets of human civilisation which makes life worth living. The expanded connotation of life would mean the tradition and cultural heritage of the persons concerned. 

In State of H.P. v. Umed Ram Sharma[2], this Court held that the right to life includes the quality of life as understood in its richness and fullness by the ambit of the constitution. Access to road was held to be an access to life itself in that state.In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[3], considering the effect of solitary confinement of a prisoner sentenced to death and the meaning of the word ‘life’ enshrined under Article 21, the Constitution Bench held that the quality of-life covered by Article 21 is something more than the dynamic meaning attached to life and liberty.

2. The petitioner further submits that replacement of asbestos by other material believed to be safer has been widespread since the mid1970s. Man-made mineral fibres and other insulating materials are rapidly replacing asbestos for heat insulation. But for other uses, for example, asbestos cement, friction material and some felts and gaskets, substitution is not at present practicable. Dust control has been gradually improved by the partial or complete enclosure of plants and the wide use of well designed local exhaust ventilation. In the textile section, a completely new wet process of forming the thread has greatly reduced dust level, previously difficult to control. During maintenance work on old insulation much stricter control of exposures is possible by isolation of the working areas, and by training in the use of good working, practices to reduce the dust, for example, damping of the insulation before removal and the use of vacuum cleaning in place of sweeping. But the removal of old insulation is likely to remain for many years a major potential source of high exposure.

Related Provisions

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts human sensitivity and moral responsibility of every State that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The Charter of the United Nations thus reinforces the faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person envisaged in the directive principles of State policy as part of the constitution. The jurisprudence of personhood or philosophy of the right to life envisaged under Article 21, enlarges its sweep to encompass human personality in its full blossom with invigorated health which is a wealth to the workman to can his livelihood to sustain the dignity of the person and to live a life with dignity and equality.

Article 38(1) lays down the foundation for human rights and enjoins the State to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting, as effectively as it may, a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life. Art.46 directs the State to protect the poor from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. Article 39(e) charges that the policy of the State shall be to secure “the health and strength of the workers”. Article 42 mandates that the States shall make provision, statutory or executive “to secure just and humane conditions of work”. Article 43 directs that the State shall “endeavour to secure to all workers, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or any other way to ensure a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities to the workers”. Article 48-A enjoins the State to protect and improve the environment. As human resources are valuable national assets for peace, industrial or material production, national wealth, progress, social stability, a decent standard of life of the worker is an input. Art. 25(2) of the universal declaration of human rights ensures right to a standard of adequate living for health and well-being of the individual including medical care, sickness and disability, Article 2(b) of the International Convention on Political, Social and Cultural Rights protects the right of the worker to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work ensuring safe and healthy working conditions.

The expression ‘life’ assured in Art.21 of the Constitution does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning which includes the right to livelihood, better standard of life, hygienic conditions in workplace and leisure.

Judgment

The Court granted the writ petitions. Specifically, the Court ordered that the “All Safety in the Use of Asbestos” regulations and guidelines published by the International Labour Organization be binding on all industries, that industries be bound to compensate employees for health hazards they had suffered as a result of asbestos exposure, the maintenance of health records of every worker for a minimum period of time, the obligatory adoption by all industries of the “Membrane Filter test” to detect asbestos, that industries provide compulsory health insurance coverage to those not covered by the existing schemes, the inspection of workers who may be suffering with asbestos-related health hazards to determine if they should be compensated.

In its discussion of the worker’s right to health and a healthy and safe work environment, the Court cited several Articles from the Indian Constitution including Articles 38 (promote the welfare of the people), 39(e) (measures to ensure the health and strength of the workers), 42 (secure just and humane conditions of work), 43 (secure to all workers s decent standard of life), and 46 (protection of the poor from social injustice and all forms of exploitation).

The Court considered the workers’ right to health to be an integral part of the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Conclusion

The Court discussed the Convention 162 of the International Labour Conference that provides for provisions for the betterment of labourers. The Court ordered that the “All Safety in the Use of Asbestos” regulations and guidelines published by the International Labor Organization be binding on all industries, that industries be bound to compensate employees for health hazards they had suffered as a result of asbestos exposure, that there be the maintenance of health records by industries of every worker for a minimum period of time. In its discussion of the worker’s right to health and a healthy and safe work environment, the Court cited Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (human sensitivity and moral responsibility of States), Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (right of everyone to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work), and several articles from the Indian Constitution including Articles 38 (promotion of the welfare of the people), 39(e) (measures to ensure the health and strength of the workers), 42 (secure just and humane conditions of work), 43 (secure to all workers a decent standard of life), and 46 (protection of the poor from social injustice and all forms of exploitation).

Citing Supreme Court case precedents including that of Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation that lays out jurisprudence on the right to life and precedents where courts have issued directions for the welfare of workers, the Court considered the workers’ right to health and medical aid (while in service or post-retirement) to be an integral part of the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.


References

[1]1985(3) SCC 545.

[2](1986)2 SCC 68.

[3](1978) 4 SCC 494.

[4] https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[5] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/709776/

[6] https://labour.gov.in/sites/default/files/EC%20Act.pdf

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