For those who thought that ‘bonded labour’ was an evil of the past, the recent testimonies of a few courageous women whose families have been going through years of tribulation in the tribal belt of the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border proved to be a rude reminder that the supposedly-abolished practice is flourishing like it had always done, despite a law - the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 - that specifically bans it.
It was at a ‘dharna’ (sit-in) in Jaipur in October on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), staged by groups like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) led by Aruna Roy, that these women from the Sahariya and adivasi-inhabited districts of Baran, Jhalawar and Bundi in Rajasthan, described their realities. They were brought to the venue with the help of activists Mamta Bai and Gyarsi Bai, of the Jagrut Mahila Sangathan in Baran.
Know the Law
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, defines the bonded labour system as the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that –
(i) In consideration of an advance obtained by him or by any of his lineal ascendants or descendants (whether or not such advance is evidenced by any document) and in consideration of the interest, if any, on such advance, or
(ii) In pursuance of any customary or social obligation, or
(iii) In pursuance of an obligation devolving on him by succession, or
(iv) For any economic consideration received by him or by any of his lineal ascendants or descendants, or
(v) By reason of his birth in any particular caste or community, he would –
(1) Render, by himself or through any member of his family, or any person dependent on him, labour or service to the creditor, or for the benefit of the creditor, for a specified period or for an unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages, or
(2) Forfeit the freedom of employment or other means of livelihood for a specified period or for an unspecified period, or
(3) Forfeit the right to move freely throughout the territory of India, or
(4) Forfeit the right to appropriate or sell at market value any of his property or product of his labour or the labour of a member of his family or any person dependent on him, and includes the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a surety for a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that in the event of the failure of the debtor to repay the debt, he would render the bonded labour on behalf of the debtor.
The Act recognises as illegal as such practice and vests powers with the District Magistrate or any officer designated by him to uphold the provisions of the Act including initiating inquiries into whether such a system is in practice in the district and if so, eradicate it and rehabilitate persons or families affected (Sections 10, 11 and 12).
Meet Chota Bai, 55. She came to Iklera village in Kishanganj tehsil of Baran, after having migrated with her family from Sheopur district in Madhya Pradesh about 12 years ago. Both her sons, Sitaram, 31, and Malkhan, 25, today work as ‘halis’ – or servants expected to do any work at any hour for a menial wage – for Jugal Kishore and Jumma Khan, respectively. Her daughter Geetha and son-in-law Om Prakash, too, migrated to Iklera and soon after Om Prakash started working as a ‘hali’ for Hansraj Dhakkad for a mere Rs 1,500 (US$1=Rs 45) a month. Worse, he got paid just Rs 200 a month and 20 kilos of wheat, and was constantly told that the balance amount would be paid later. Badly in need of money, Om Prakash borrowed Rs 4,000 from Hansraj. Thus began a vicious cycle of debt, which quickly trapped him into bondage.
What does being bonded really mean? Om Prakash’s story sheds some light. He worked for Hanraj for three years. Instead of receiving money, he was told that his debt with the landlord was only rising. At the end of the first year, he was told that he still owed Rs 5,000, which included the interest, food provided and penalties for leave. Om Prakash wanted to give up the work but was told that he could not do that unless he paid up. He had no way out. Since he had a home to run, he was forced to borrow Rs 2,000 again from Hansraj, while continuing to receive only Rs 200 a month and 20 kilos of wheat. All the while he had imagined that the balance that was owed to him in terms of salary was going towards redeeming his debt. However, by the end of that year, he was informed that he owed Hansraj Rs 11,500 and that he had to work for 11 months without money in order to repay him.
Debilitated in body and mind, Om Prakash simply couldn’t work and Hansraj ‘sold’ to him to his brother, Chauthmal, for Rs 11,500. His miseries mounted as his daughter fell ill and he had to borrow another Rs 2,000. He also had to donate blood for her treatment. Already weakened, he collapsed and could not go to work for a couple of days. The two brothers then went to his house and began to pressurise him – they said he owed them Rs 20,000 and that if he could not pay up, he had to get up and work on their fields.
Om Prakash mustered up the little strength he had left, and went to work, only to fall ill again the next day. At that point, the two brothers dragged him to Chauthmal’s house and beat him until he bled from his nose and mouth. They threatened him saying that he had better pay up otherwise they would extract the debt from his wife, Geetha. He was then asked to work for the whole day, despite the miserable state he was in. That evening, when he was asked to get some fodder for the cattle from the field, he decided to bite the bullet and escape. His wife, Geetha, and mother-in-law, Chota Bai, accompanied him to the Kishanganj police station, where he lodged an FIR against the duo.
The treatment meted out to Om Prakash is not unusual in these parts. Revealed Sitaram, Chota Bai’s son, who worked under Jugal Kishore, “When I did not go to work one day as my wife was very ill, Jugal Kishore came home and started shouting abuses saying that if I did not pay him, he would kill me.”
According to Om Prakash, around 25 others in his village are in a similar situation. Other stories involving bondage were also related during the ‘dharna’. After listening to these testimonies, a fact-finding team of activists and journalists visited Iklera. Explains Lakhan Salvi, a young writer-activist who was part of the team, “Iklera is inhabited largely by Sahariyas, who have migrated from Madhya Pradesh. They do not possess any documents or identity proofs and are hence unable to avail of any benefits or own land in Rajasthan. And that poses a huge problem.” According to the local community, every village in the Sahariya belt of Baran is likely to have a minimum of 20-25 bonded workers.
However, Naveen Jain, District Collector of Baran, is not convinced that these were indeed cases of bonded labour. Says Jain, “There is a thin line between the ‘hali’ system and bonded labour. Most of these cases fall under the ‘hali’ system, where minimum wages are paid and no forced labour is involved. Only one or two cases of the 16 brought to my notice fall under the bonded labour category, and they will be addressed.”
Yet, despite Jain’s official stand, the district administration was pressurised to issue certificates declaring men like Om Prakash as bonded labourers, and free them from any debt or bond they had with their employers. He also distributed wheat to the families, issued job cards to them and made work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act available to them in Iklera.
Ultimately, it was because of the courage of women like Chota Bai and the commitment of grassroots activists like Mamta Bai and Gyarsi Bai who brought them to Jaipur, that Om Prakash and others like him could finally gain their freedom.
One can quibble over whether the ‘hali’ system prevalent in the Sahariya belt of Rajasthan is different from bonded labour, but it clearly represents a violation of human rights and can only be condemned.
By arrangement with WFS