Shouldn’t the weekly off day be a matter of choice, instead of being dictated by law?
WRITTEN BY BIBEK DEBROY
This is an old chestnut, but I want to use the peg to make a different point. How did Sunday become a holiday in India? The best answer lies in the DoPT response, in 2012 to an RTI filed in Jammu by Raman Sharma, asking the same question. It said, “There is no information regarding declaration of Sunday as holiday.” However, in 1985, DoPT issued an order, which said: “The Government of India is pleased to introduce five-day week in the civil administration offices of the Government of India with effect from June 3, 1985. Such government offices would now work for five days a week from Monday to Friday, with all Saturdays as closed.” By implication, Sunday would be a holiday.
The complete answer, as with many of our labour laws, lies in the labour movement and factory legislation in Britain — replicated in India. In June 1949, Raja Kulkarni wrote in the Economic Weekly: “The first Factory Act in 1881 was enacted… at the instance of the Lancashire mill-owners who brought pressure upon the government to fight… competition from the Indian Mills who could produce at cheap rates because of cheap labour, lack of stay (sic) regulation of working hours or restriction on the employment of women and children, etc. The Lancashire mill-owners were interested in getting the hours of work and employment of women and children regulated in order to enhance the cost of production of the Indian mills, their competitors.” The 1881 Act was replaced by a second Factory Act in 1891. The act drew upon the Bombay Factory Commission of 1884 and Factory Labour Commission of 1890. The Sunday holiday story has to do with these two commissions. You could say that the explanation of “public holiday” in the Negotiable Instruments Act refers to Sunday. But remember, the Negotiable Instruments Act also dates to 1881.
The manager of the Empress Mill testified in 1884 before the Factory Commission: “…Mills should close every Sunday and give the hands a rest, but when a native holiday occurs, I would work on the Sunday.” The manager of the Sewlal Motilal Spinning Mill testified: “I would not give holidays on Sundays always… if a native holiday came during the week I would work the following Sunday. The operatives would object to have their holidays fixed for any special day… they would prefer their own holidays to Sundays.”
The Commission concluded: “The operatives in all the provinces visited by us desire that it shall be one fixed day in the week, that all the factories shall be closed on the same day, and that the law shall fix Sunday as the day of rest. We observe that in the Bill before the Legislative Council, no mention is made of Sunday, and we suppose that a reference to a Sunday holiday was omitted in consideration of the fact that that intentions of the British Government might be mistaken in appointing the Christian Sabbath as the day of rest. After a careful enquiry… we have come to the conclusion that they ask that Sunday should be the day fixed for the holiday, because it is the most convenient day for meeting their friends who are employed in other mercantile establishments and government offices, where a Sunday holiday, has always been the rule.”
There are shops and establishments outside the purview of factory-related labour legislation. These have to be closed on one day of the week, but that doesn’t have to be Sunday. In Delhi, for instance, “different days may be specified for different classes of shops or commercial establishments or for different areas”. I don’t see why this flexibility shouldn’t be extended across the board, getting away from the Sunday syndrome. There is a difference between an establishment remaining closed on a fixed day of the week and each individual worker getting a day off once a week. It is perfectly possible for an establishment to remain open all seven days, as long as each worker gets a day off. This is a matter of choice. Why must law mandate this? Unfortunately, that is the equation in the shops and establishments legislation. This is also the de facto provision in the Weekly Holidays Act of 1942. We should get away from factory mindsets.
The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views expressed are personal