Sanjay Dutt’s Release Highlights Prisoners’ Low-Wage Issue

Sanjay Dutt walked out of jail with Rs 450 that he earned during his 5-year sentence.  

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Opinion
5 min read
Sanjay Dutt, with his wife Manyata, after his release from Yerwada Central Jail in Pune. (Photo: PTI)

Sanjay Dutt Received Rs 50 A Day For His Work

Sanjay Dutt walked free today, completing (in an imperfect sense of that word) a five-year term of rigorous imprisonment for illegal possession of arms under the Arms Act. He didn’t walk out empty-handed. Apart from his personal belongings, he also carried with him a princely sum of Rs 450 as the wages he had earned for the work that he did while in prison.

This is not to say that he did little or no work while in prison, or that he was not paid at all while in prison. According to the calculations by the jail authorities , Sanjay Dutt “earned” Rs 38,000 for the work that he did over the five-year period – making paper bags – but after deductions for the amounts he had spent on food and other items while in jail, this reduced to Rs 450 that he would walk out with. His work earned him about Rs 50 a day – an increase from the Rs 35 a day he got before the pay was increased by the State Government.

Sanjay Dutt’s salary may be of no consequence to him, but it brings to light the discussion around prisoners’ wages. (Photo: PTI)
Sanjay Dutt’s salary may be of no consequence to him, but it brings to light the discussion around prisoners’ wages. (Photo: PTI)

Shouldn’t Prisoners Earn Minimum Wage?

These figures, while largely meaningless to someone who is as well-off as Sanjay Dutt, bring to the fore an issue that has been the subject of some debate in the past and is not yet fully resolved: Should prisoners be paid at least the minimum wage fixed under law for the work that they do while in jail?

The gap between the minimum wage and what is paid to prisoners is fairly substantial. For instance, even for unskilled labour in the State of Maharashtra, the minimum wage is Rs 317 per day (in the paper and paper-board industries, depending on where the industry is located) whereas Sanjay Dutt, as a semi-skilled labourer in prison, made only Rs 50 per month for his work.

Besides, Article 23 of the Constitution of India prohibits forced labour or begar, and as the Supreme Court has interpreted this provision, making anyone work for less than minimum wages amounts to a violation of Article 23.

Is the Govt Violating Article 23 of the Constitution?

In understanding this issue, a few things must be kept in mind.

First, under-trial prisoners cannot be made to work while in prison. It is only those who have been sentenced to undergo imprisonment by a court, after trial, who can be made to do such work.

Second, even among those who have been sentenced to time in prison, those who’ve been sentenced to “simple imprisonment” are not required to perform labour (unless they ask for such work), whereas those who’ve been sentenced to “rigorous imprisonment” are required to perform “hard labour” as defined under Section 60 of the Indian Penal Code.

On the face of it, it would seem that this provision in the IPC falls afoul of Article 23 of the Constitution.

However, the Constitution’s framers were well aware of this provision when they drafted this Article and therefore inserted clause (2) which allowed the State to impose “compulsory service for public purpose”.

Section 60 mandating hard labour for those sentenced to rigorous imprisonment is therefore protected under this clause of the Constitution as it is “compulsory service for public purpose”. Therefore, a law which makes prisoners perform hard labour while serving a sentence for rigorous imprisonment does not violate the Constitution.

It is only those who have been sentenced to undergo imprisonment by a court, who can be made to work. (Photo: PTI)
It is only those who have been sentenced to undergo imprisonment by a court, who can be made to work. (Photo: PTI)

Thanks to The Supreme Court, Wages for Prisoners Differ From State to State

The validity of rigorous imprisonment and the issue of paying prisoners minimum wages has been gone into by the Supreme Court in State of Gujarat v Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat (1998).

Two High Courts – the Gujarat High Court and the Kerala High Court – had taken the view that the wages of the prisoners had to be on par with the minimum wages fixed by law. Two other High Courts – the Rajasthan High Court and the Himachal Pradesh High Court – had directed the respective State Governments to frame a scheme to pay prison wages as close to, if not on par with minimum wages.

The Supreme Court, however, set aside all these judgments and directed the State Government to set up schemes to pay “equitable wages” to prisoners. What these equitable wages were, the Supreme Court did not clarify, but left it up to each State Government to decide. It allowed the State Governments to deduct the “reasonable expenses” on food, clothing and other amenities to the prisoner while paying him these wages.

Prisoners in Delhi earned as much as Rs 171 for skilled labour, while they served their term. (Photo: Reuters)
Prisoners in Delhi earned as much as Rs 171 for skilled labour, while they served their term. (Photo: Reuters)

Denying Prisoners Minimum Wage May Prevent Social Reintegration

That hasn’t put an end to the matter yet.

A PIL was filed last year alleging that state governments hadn’t fixed wages close to the minimum wages mandated under the law and the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre and the State Governments asking for their responses as to why wages for prisoners shouldn’t be on par with the minimum wages fixed under law.

At present, the wages for work at prison range from as high as Rs 171 for skilled labour in Delhi to as little as Rs 21 per day in Kerala for unskilled labour – all some way short of the mandatory minimum wages in each State.

At stake here is not simply the technical legal question of whether there is a difference between work in prison and outside prison. If India’s criminal justice system is indeed about reformation and not retribution (as the Supreme Court has often repeated), then the time spent in prison should enable the convict to integrate into society as a peaceable and law-abiding member after his term in prison.

Such seamless integration is not possible if the prisoner has no means to lead a normal life. The long battle in court and the subsequent incarceration usually drains the assets of convicts making it that much harder for them to lead a normal life once outside prison.

If, apart from all other aspects of reformation, the time spent in prison could leave a prisoner with enough savings to start a new life and make a new beginning, the cause of reformative justice would be much better served.

(Alok Prasanna Kumar is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

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