M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu and Others, 1996 – The Child Labour Case – Case Summary

Equivalent Citations: AIR 1997 SC 699, (1996) 6 SCC 756
Petitioner: M.C. Mehta
Respondent: State of Tamil Nadu and others
Bench: Kuldip Singh, B.L. Hansaria, S.B. Majumdar
Date of Judgment:10/12/1996


Child labour is a practice of employing children in economic activities on a part time or full time basis. Children employed in such economic activities are deprived of their childhood and it is harmful for their physical and mental health. Child Labour is a major problem in our country. In the present case, Sivakasi was taken as one of the worst offenders for violating fundamental rights of children.

Article 24 imposes a duty on the state to provide every child below the age of 14 with free and compulsory education. After the Unni Krishnan Case, this duty has acquired the status of a fundamental right. In this case, the Supreme Court discussed various provisions prohibiting employment of children in India. The Supreme Court ordered to send a copy of this judgment to Chief Secretaries of all the State Governments and Union Territories and to the Secretary of Ministry of Labour, Government of India for their information and doing the needful.

Final judgment 

Our constitutional makers were wise enough to keep into consideration the future of the children in India. The situation of children born in India was not pleasant at the time of independence. Therefore, the makers of our constitution prohibited employment of children below the age of 14 in factories under Article 24 and imposed a duty on the state to provide fee and compulsory education of children under Article 45 of the Constitution. After the decision of Unni Krishnan[1], Article 45 has acquired the status of a fundamental right. The Court acknowledged that despite the presence of such provisions in our constitution, children are still exploited and forced into child labour even after 50 years of independence of our country. 

Sivakasi was considered as one of the worst regions that violated these provisions by employing young children in its match factories. The court noted that the manufacturing process of matches and fireworks is hazardous to the health of children and may give rise to fatal accidents.The court noted that the process of manufacturing matches and fireworks is hazardous and may give rise to accidents. By relying on Article 39(f) and Article 45 of the Constitution, the court gave certain directions to improve the quality of life of children employed in the factories. The Court also felt the need of constituting a committee to oversee the directions passed. The committee was to consist of (1) Shri R.K. Jain, a senior advocate; (2) Ms. Indira Jaisingh, another senior advocate; and (3) Shri K.C. Dua, Advocate.

The committee has done a commendable job. It submitted its report on 11th September, 1991 containing the following recommendations –

(a) State of Tamil Nadu should ensure that children are not employed in fire work factories.

(b) The children employed in the match factories for packing purposes should work in separate premises.

(c) Employers should let children work for more than 6 hours a day.

(d) Proper transport facilities should be provided by the employers and State Governmentto the children.

(e) Facilities for recreation, socialization and education should be provided either in the factory or close to the factory.

(f) Employers should make arrangements for providing basic diets for the children and in case they fail to do so, the Government should provide for basic diet to the children.

(g) Daily wages should be abolished and payment should be made on monthly basis. Wages should be commensurate to the work done by the children.

(h) All the workers working in the industry, whether in registered factories or in unregistered factories, whether in cottage industry or on contract basis, should be brought under the Insurance Scheme.

(i) Welfare Fund – For Sivakasi area, instead of present committee, a committee should be headed by a retired High Court Judge or a person of equal status with two social workers, who should be answerable either to this Hon’ble Court or to the High Court as may be directed by this Hon’ble Court. Employers should be directed to deposit Rs.2/- per month per worker towards welfare fund and the State should be directed to give the matching contribution. The employers of all the industries, whether it is registered or unregistered, whether it is cottage industry or on contract basis, to deposit Rs.2/- per month per worker.

(j) A National Commission for children’s welfare should be set up to prepare a scheme for child labour abolition in a phased manner. Such a Commission should be answerable to this Hon’ble Court directly and should report to this Hon’ble Court at periodical intervals about the progress.

President of the All India Chamber of Match Industries, Sivakasi in his affidavit rejected the recommendations of the committee. However, the court didn’t consider the affidavit of the President.

As per the 1971 census, 4.66 per cent of the child population in India consisted of working children which meant that around 10.7 million children were working at that time.  According to 1981 census the figure went up to 11.16 million working children. None of the above figure includes children working in the unorganized sector. The court stated that the actual number of working children in India is between 44 million to 100 million. (As per 1991 census). This indicates that Child labour is widely practiced in India. The Court stated that without the efforts of the Central and State Government this problem will never be solved.

Constitutional Framework

The Court dealt with this issue with a wider perspective by taking into account the situation of Child Labour in other parts of the country and discussed how the constitution mandates health, development and education of children through its provisions.

Article 24 – Prohibition of employment of children in factories, etc. – No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment. 39(e). that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength:

Article 39(f) -Children should be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner, in conditions of freedom and dignity and childhood should be protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.

Article 41 – Right to work, to education and to public assistance in certain cases.- The State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.

Article 45 – Provision for free and compulsory education for children.- The State shall endeavor to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.

Article 47 – Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. – The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.

International commitments

Convention on Rights of the Child to which India is a party to, affirms that children’s right require special protection and it aims, not only to provide such protection, but also to ensure the continuous improvement in the situation of children all over the world, as well as their development and education in conditions of peace and security. Thus, the Convection not only protects the child’s civil and political right, but also extends protection to child’s economic, social, cultural and humanitarian rights.

International Labour Organization has laid down 5 main focus areas for the gradual elimination of Child Labour-

  1. Prohibition of children labour.
  2. Protecting child labour at work.
  3. Attacking the basic causes of child labour.
  4. Helping children to adapt to future work.
  5. Protecting the children of working parents.

A royal commission on Labour was also established in 1929 under the British Government to inquire into various matters relating to labour in India. The commission examined the conditions of Child Labour in India and found out that children are made to work for any number of hours every day. The recommendations of the committee were discussed in the Legislative assembly and The Children (pleading of labour) Act, 1933 was passed, which the first statutory enactment dealing with child labour. Today there are various legislations that prohibit the employment of child labours. Section 67 of the Factories Act, 1948, Section 109 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1951, Section 45 of the Mines Act, 1952, Section 21 of the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961, Section 3 of the Apprentices Act, 1961, Section 24 of the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 strongly prohibit child labour.

The court expressed its disappointment towards the state of children who were employed inspite of the presence of the aforesaid provisions and listed out the main causes of Child Labour in India.

(1) poverty; (2) low wages of the adult; (3) unemployment; (4) absence of schemes for family allowance; (5) migration to urban areas; (6) large families; (7) children being cheaply available; (8) non-existence of provisions for compulsory education; (9) illiteracy and ignorance of parents; and (10) traditional attitudes, were held to be the main causes of Child Labour in India.

Solution contemplated by the Supreme Court

The Court explored certain ways through which the problem of Child labour can be solved. It stated that the problem of Child labour can be solved by insisting on compulsory education. Poor citizens don’t send their children to schools due to lack of money. Therefore, unless a family is provided with a stable source of income the problem of child labour will not be solved. Since, it is not possible for such parents to educate their children, the state owes a duty to come forward and discharge its obligation in this regard.

Final Orders –

  1. The court ordered to conduct a survey of child laboursthat could be given an alternative source of income to help in their education.
  2. Those areas of employment should be identified which are hazardous on human health, especially children, and ranked. The most hazardous employment may rank first in priority, to be followed by comparatively less hazardous and so on.
  3. Employment must be given to the parents of the child. Such an employment can be given in the same industry where the child is employed.
  4. In those cases where alternative employment cannot be made available, the parent of the concerned child would be paid the income which would be earned on the corpus, which would be a sum of Rs.85, 000/- for each child, every month. The employment given or payment made would cease to be operative if the child would not be sent by the parent/guardian for education.
  5. On discontinuation of the employment of the child, his education would be assured in suitable institution with a view to make it a better citizen.
  6. The court pointed out that Article 45 mandates compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years; it is also required to be free. It would be the duty of the Inspectors to see that this call of the Constitution is carried out.
  7. A district could be the unit of collection so that the executive head of the district keeps a watch on the work of the Inspectors. Further, in view of the magnitude of the task, a separate cell in the Labour Department of the appropriate Government would be created. Monitoring of the scheme would also be necessary and the Secretary of the Department could perhaps do this work. Overall monitoring by the Ministry of Labour, Government of India, would be beneficial and worthwhile.

The writ petition was accordingly disposed off.


[1]Unni Krishnan J.P. and others v. State of Andhra Pradesh [1993] 1 S.C.C. 645

Hi, I am a law student pursuing B.Sc.LLB (Hons.) from Gujarat National Law University (GNLU), Gandhinagar. I have a keen interest in legal research and writing. I am thankful to Law Times Journal for providing me with a platform where I can hone my writing skills. I hope my work provides you with a better understanding of legal concepts and helps you save time. Enjoy reading!