Supreme Court of India, M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu, 31 October 1990, AIR 1991 SC417; and 10 December 1996, AIR 1997 SC 699
Reference to international law to strengthen a decision based on domestic law
Child labour in firework industries/ Work accidents/ Reference to international law to strengthen a decision based on domestic law
A public interest petition challenged child labour practices in the match and fireworks industries in the state of Tamil Nadu as a violation of India’s Constitution and laws protecting children under 14 years of age from hazardous work and requiring States to adopt policies ensuring protection from exploitation. The Court ordered the State to prohibit work by children in those sectors, except in packing in separate facilities, and to establish education and recreation facilities for working children.
Following the above order, a serious accident occurred in a fireworks factory in Tamil Nadu. The Court, after recalling the relevant Constitutional provisions, examined India’s international commitments, including those assumed by ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child:
“It would be apposite to apprise ourselves also about our commitment to world community. For the case at hand, it would be enough to note that India has accepted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was concluded by the UN General Assembly on 20th November, 1989. This Convention 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 Convention not only protects the child’s civil and political rights, but also extends protection to child's economic, social, cultural and humanitarian rights”.2
In addition, the Court underlined that India has shown its concern in this field since the creation of the ILO, which “has been playing an important role in the process of gradual elimination of child labour and to protect children from industrial exploitation.”3
Strengthening its decision based on the Constitution by referring to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Court ordered the States in India to implement a system of fines applicable to employers and establish a Child Labour Rehabilitation Welfare Fund for the education of child workers. It also ordered the States of India to inter alia conduct a survey on child labour, take action on hazardous child labour, create a separate unit within the Labour Department for child labour, and direct labour inspectors to ensure compliance with the education guarantees contained in the Constitution.