I often recall this real life incident more than four decades old and a wave of anger and frustration still overcomes me and I feel so agitated in my mind and heart. His name was Kalloo (Name changed to protect privacy) and he was elder son of a man from lower echelon of society, who was traditionally serving my family in village for agricultural and allied support. Kalloo was married and living separately with his wife and two daughters. I must have been a child seven or eight years old around that time. He was uneducated and under some compelling circumstances, he had taken a petty sum of Rs 250/- as loan from another landlord and was working as his farm laborer and domestic support. Such was the level of exploitation that the principal amount remained intact over the years and he worked only in lieu of interest accrued annually.
Kalloo was being grossly ill-treated, often abused and beaten, and seldom allowed to visit his family members. His wife and children used to visit my grandmother off and on for seeking basic support like food, clothes and medicines etc. and I used to feel very miserable and concerned seeing their plight not knowing then much about socio-economic dynamics those days. After couple of years, I completed my elementary education and shifted to another city for higher education. Much later, I came to know that my grandma finally intervened and funded Kalloo to repay his petty debt to come out of the clutches of this landlord at the cost of spoiling relationship of two families to the extent of enmity. Whenever I remember the plight of Kalloo and his family, it still sends a wave of anger and disgust down the spine.
The evil custom of bonded labor (or slavery) has been prevalent in India and many other parts of the world as well since ancient times. Though various agencies from time to time have their own estimates, the exact count of such Kalloos and likes in India is not available but even a conservative estimate would put this figure in millions. It predominantly exists in the agriculture and farms, small scale industries and informal (including domestic) sectors in the form of bonded labor, child labor including prostitution, trafficking and hazardous work.
Bonded labour was legally abolished in India in mid-seventies of the last century through a federal legislation. The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976 was passed and uniformly applied to all the states of India. It was retrospectively applicable with effect from October 25, 1975. It provided provision for severe punishments including imprisonment and fine for those who are found guilty of exploitable practices of bonded labor. Such practices included bonded debt, demanding someone to work as a bonded laborer and failure to return property belonging to the bonded worker.
Notwithstanding above, it is still prevalent in many parts mainly due to vested interests and weak enforcement of the law by government in general and enforcement agencies in particular. It involves the exploitive practices of credit and labor agreements that often lead to slave-like exploitation because of wide divide and mismatch in power imbalances between the rich (lender) and the poor (borrower).
Despite the statutory prohibition, bonded labor is widely practiced in various forms. The worst affected are the children, particularly those from the scheduled castes and other weaker sections. In certain parts, the practice exists in informal sectors like the Devadasi practice of bonded sex workers, and in small-scale industries like textile, firecracker, brick and tile kilns and granite extraction industries, leather goods manufacturing sectors,. The most affected by bonded labor in the non-farming industries are the children and women.
Ever since old times, debt bondage in India has been most prevalent in agricultural areas. Small farmers and landless workers would take small loans and often find themselves paying interest on the loan that exceeds amount of the loan even in a single year, like one case referred to in the opening paragraph. It is a vicious cycle and debtor would seldom survive and debt that remained unpaid off in his or her lifetime would pass down to their descendants/kin, making the original debtor's family ever indebted to the families of the landlord or money lender. I am consciously not relying on or referring to any figure based on various surveys which present varying figures and often questionable methodology but one thing is undoubted that numbers are staggering and issues are mindboggling.
This evil system continues unabated mainly due to poverty, socio-economic compulsions, lack of reliable credit sources, and unreachable, unaffordable and at times even unfair rule of law and justice. Social acceptance of the exploitation of weaker sections, minority castes and ethnicities has been traditionally prevalent in South Asia. Various reviews from time to time provide evidence of the bonded labor in a wide range of socio-economic sectors such as agriculture, small scale and cottage industries and domestic households in different States. Although the agricultural labor which was traditionally the predominant form of bonded labor practices in India, have declined substantially with time, but newer forms of bondage have emerged in more modern agricultural, industrial and informal sectors. Migrants and child laborers are particularly vulnerable to bonded labor practices today, through recruitment systems (often illegal) where labor contractors and intermediaries lure and entice poor and ill-informed parents and workers with false promises of lucrative wages and advance payments with decent working avenues and conditions.
Though land reforms were introduced several decades ago, but due to improper implementation in several states, large stretches of lands are still controlled by families practicing feudal form of land ownership and labor employment. In the absence of viable livelihood options, a large segment of rural population is forced to work for landlords and eventually end up in vicious debt traps and ending up as bonded laborer. Further, many poor families are pushed to migrate into urban areas seeking odd jobs. A large number of children employed as bonded laborers by the non-farming sectors like small-scale textile, firecracker, leather goods manufacturing, brick kilns and granite extraction units are usually from the families who had forced migration from the villages to cities. Many such children are also employed as bonded laborers in restaurants, eateries and small workshops, and some even fall prey to sex trade.
There is yet another disturbing trend of bonded labor as domestic help particularly in metropolitan and bigger cities. Only other day, there was a disturbing news item of a gruesome torture and death of a housemaid in Delhi. The postmortem report is stated to have revealed evidence of death due to constant beating and multiple injuries. Another domestic help (a woman) of the same household under treatment in a city hospital for grievous injuries and fractured hip bone, is stated to have told authorities that she was at times forced to eat like a dog without using hands. She was made to lick her food with hands and knees down on the floor and employer would simply laugh and continue experimenting with new tools and excuses to torture in different ways. It is alleged that for more than a year, they were not paid even a single penny and sadistic torture was more pronounced whenever they demanded wages for work. Apparently, these maids were supplied by a human trafficker through another middleman from the eastern region. This is not the only inhuman episode, such incidents occur every off and on and a majority remains unreported.
As the general standard of living has gone up in cities, instead of working themselves many people prefer keeping dedicated maids or domestic help. Consequently, the business of placement agencies is also flourishing and as per available data, there are about 1750 such placement agencies in Delhi alone. It is different story that workers employed through these agencies neither get neither regular wages nor humane treatment from a majority of employers. Besides, a large number of unauthorized placement agencies are operating illegally. Human traffickers and middlemen bring people from poor families particularly from the eastern and north-eastern states with a promise of employment and decent living in bigger cities. Some of them are given to placement agencies on commission and a majority is sold to unauthorized agencies. These agencies, in turn, supply them to households and other businesses usually on one time commission and leave them at the mercy of employer. Thus middlemen and agencies make a lot of money and the worker, often women and underage children, don’t get even minimum wages, what to mention about malnutrition and ill-treatment.
Owing to widespread corruption and weak enforcement of law, and their close nexus with city based criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking, rescuing the women and children from the gangs engaged in human trafficking becomes virtually impossible, although some NGOs and right thinking individuals from time to time try to help.
The Ministry of Labor, Government of India had way back initiated a Centrally Sponsored Scheme to provide assistance for the rehabilitation of each bonded laborer, to be equally contributed by the Federal and the State government. But the process is tardy and cumbersome, and very few people are able to achieve rehabilitation. Prosecution of guilty employers is also weak. Since such laborers are very poor and asset less, a majority of them run the risk to relapse into bondage. The financial assistance from the government, even if materialize, in the absence of any additional support mechanism for a released and asset less laborer is not sufficient support to start a new life.
There is no simple and straight solution to this complex and heinous problem. On one side is the miserable social and economic plight of the bonded labor and on the other side are pitted vested interests of greedy and often inhuman employers, middlemen and traffickers. Preventive efforts, apart from recognizing evils of bondage, must address it through public sensitization, rights awareness, adult literacy, organizing workers, income generation, vocational skills development etc. An integrated and long-term strategy must be evolved keeping in view that lack of access of the poor households to appropriate income generation services is one of the root causes of the bonded labor. Long-term integrated rural development and land reform measures focusing on poverty alleviation and social security would be pathways out of bondage in the long run.
Last but not the least, weak enforcement of labor laws and the laws of the land also need to be addressed. India has no dearth of legislation including those of regulating the conditions of contractual work, migrant laborer, prohibiting child labor and minimum wages. But these laws largely remain unimplemented in letter and spirit. Repeated instances of violation of the fundamental human rights, freedom and dignity of workers come in light. A sincere and concerted effort to ensure implementation of the law by government and enforcement agencies in close cooperation with employers' and workers' associations and civil society is necessary to root out the evil of bondage.