11 Aug 2021 7:00 AM GMT
The Lok Sabha, on August 3, passed "The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021" which essentially gives power to Central Government to prohibit strike, lock-out and layoffs in "Essential Defence Services". The stated object of the bill is the maintenance of essential defence services for the security of the nation and the life and property of the public at large and matter connected...
The Lok Sabha, on August 3, passed "The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021" which essentially gives power to Central Government to prohibit strike, lock-out and layoffs in "Essential Defence Services". The stated object of the bill is the maintenance of essential defence services for the security of the nation and the life and property of the public at large and matter connected thereto. At first glance, the bill, demonstrates the intention of the government to ensure continuous production in the defence sector, however, in reality, the government has given itself sweeping power to disrupt the lives of both the industry and the workmen.
To give a brief overview of the bill, the Central Government can notify prohibition on strike, lock-out and layoff for a period of 6 months which can be extended for another 6 months if the government feels it is necessary to do so in name of public interest, interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security, public order and morality. The other provision is a violation of the prohibition order, which can lead to punishment for up to 1 year and a fine. The punishment for workmen is quite strict as they can lead to disciplinary action including dismissal, this whole exercise can be done without holding any enquiry. Apart from disciplinary action, the workmen are liable for criminal action in which they can be arrested without a warrant. The other main provision is the punishment of up to 2 years for those who instigate, incite any workmen to go on strike or provide any fund for any strike.
Let us now evaluate different provisions of the bill.
The Essential Defence Services Bill shows the upper hand of central government in determining all facets of Defence Public Sector Undertaking and their connected undertaking. This whole exercise is being done in the name of the public interest, sovereignty and integrity of India. The other minute detail which can be noted is the obsession with the word "Public Interest" which has been used seven times in the bill but importantly no definition is given in the bill. The term "Public Interest" is such a wide term that it can include anything and everything, the term is also subjective in nature.
The genesis of Indian Labour Laws can be traced back to 1860, when Employer and Workmen Disputes Act, 1860 was enacted by the Britishers. Interestingly, Essential Defence Services Bill and Employer and Workmen Disputes Act, 1860 have one thing in common as they both provide for imprisonment in case workmen resort to strike. The Employer and Workmen Disputes Act, 1860 was repealed in 1929 owing to its strict provisions. The Act was replaced with Indian Trade Disputes Act, 1929 which provided for strike after serving 15 days-notice periods in public utility concerns. However, Essential Defence Services Bill is a clear reminiscence of Rule 81A of Defence India Rules, 1942 which was inserted during World War II. By this rule, the government can put a blanket ban on strikes and lockouts in any industrial undertaking all over India.
In the end, one may note the real reason behind enactment of this bill that is protesting of workers in Ordnance Factory Board. But bringing in such a harsh act (normally enacted during war times) may be counter-intuitive and harmful in the long run as employer and employee cannot properly function under the sword of this act.
The author is an advocate practicing in Punjab and Haryana High Court. Views are personal.
 D.K Yadav v. J.M.A. Industries Ltd. (1993) 3 SCC 259