40 Million Workers In Bondage In India : Shameful Stories

shameful-storiesKeeping a worker in bondage in a rural or urban area, in agrarian sector, in a factory or even at homes is a shameful practice. However, the bonded labour system continues in India even after 66 years of Independence and 37 years after the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (BLSA) was adopted in 1976. The International Labour Organisation (ILO – UN’s Labour Wing), indicating the enormity of the issue of persisting bonded labour in India, has said that 56 per cent of the bonded labour of the whole world is to be found in India. The exxact number of world’s and India’s bonded labourers was not immediately available from the ILO. The Human Rights Watch Organisation, however, has made a survey and said that there are about 40 million bonded labourers in India. The National Human Rights Commission report releasedin 2011, said that in India, the largest population of bonded labour was in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, recently, a national level advocacy campaign on bonded labour is reported to have been undertaken in Delhi. The organisations that have taken this initiative reportedly include Action Aid India (AAI), Adivasi Solidarity Council (ASC), International Justice Mission (IJM) AND Justice Ventures International (JVI). Besides, local level organisations are engaged in getting bonded labourers released. They create awareness among the people about the illegal and immoral nature of the bonded labour system. The objective of the above organisations is stated to be to mobilise people across the country to unite them against the prevalence of the bonded labour system. The Director of the International Justice Mission, Saju Mathew, has emphasised the need to build Action Vigilance Committees at District level to ensure that this harmful practice is exposed and stopped. He also warned that this practice in factories is masked as legitimate ‘job work’. This needs to be seriously probed and thoroughly exposed. Unions should be made aware of it.
A retired Professor of Sociology from the Punjab University, R. Gopal Iyer, found large scale prevalence of bonded labour practice across Punjab and Haryana. According to Prof. Iyer, the prevalence of bonded labour practice in these States has reasons. In those two states “the dominant castes  the Jats  exercise enormous control over political, social and economic structures, perhaps a lot more than in other states,” he said. A social activist, Jai Singh, working for the rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labour in Punjab has said that there are “over five lakh bonded labourers in Punjab alone and their conditions are pitiable”. More importantly, he says that despite there being laws against bonded labour the State Government is reluctant to even acknowledge that the problem exists in the State.

The Director of the International Justice Mission, Saju Mathew, has emphasised the need to build Action Vigilance Committees at District level to ensure that the shameful practice of bonded labour is exposed and stopped. He also warned that this practice in factories is masked as legitimate ‘job work’. This needs to be seriously probed and thoroughly exposed. Unions should be made aware of it.

One Gurnail Singh, working as bonded labour in Patiala in Punjab was recently released. Interestingly, he is reported to have openly appealed to the Central Government to wake up to the problem of bonded labourers in the country. Gurnail Singh’s problems did not end after he was rescued as bonded agricultural labour. After gaining freedom, he started plying a rickshaw in the same area. His previous employer Karam Singh started harassing him. He registered two complaints with the police, stating that Gurnail owed him money. The police too harassed Gurnail Singh, making it almost difficult for him to earn for his family.
Gurnail Singh had actually agreed to work as an agriculture labourer with Karam Singh in return for Rs. 5,000 loan borrowed about five years ago. He, a father of five, lived in a one room house in Nainkalan village in Patiala (Punjab). According to Gurnail Singh, he had to be available to his employer for work 24 hours. He used to spray chemicals and fertilisers in the employer’s fields. At times he had to get up as early as 3-4 in the morning and worked till 11-12 at night. And, when he told his employer his intention to leave, his employer said that his dues have accumulated upto Rs. 1.5 lakh. When Gurnail refused to pay the said amount, Karam Singh and his associates beat him badly and he had to be hospitalised. An activist, Jai Singh, of the Dalit Movement Against Servitude, finally rescued him. More significantly, when a case was launched against the employer, he denied that Gurnail was even working for him. In Punjab alone, there are thousands like Gurnail who are suffering as bonded labour. Nobody can vouchsafe which of them would be as fortunate as Gurnail Singh. Social activists engaged in rescuing bonded labour have umpteen stories to narrate. The Gurnail and Jasbir Kaur were not isolated incidents. Jai Singh of the Dalit Movement Against Servitude told ‘The Hindu’ that bonded labour is a thriving practice in Punjab. The problem of bonded labour is very real in the so-called green belt of Punjab, which leads the country in terms of agricultural products, he said.
Jasbir Kaur’s case is much more painful. Her 35 year old husband Avtar Singh had taken a loan of Rs. 45,000 five years ago from the rural landlord and offered himself and his wife Jasbir Kaur to work on fields of the landlord Baru Singh. Recently, when Avtar Singh wanted to be relieved during paddy harvesting season, there was an altercation between Avtar Singh and the employer. Avtar was reported to have gone missing. Baru Singh used to beat Avtar so much that Avtar was not in a position to move next day. Jasbir Kaur says that the employer told her that Avtar had committed suicide in the field during work.
The moment Baru Singh told Jasbir about her husband’s suicide, Jasbir went missing, fearing that Baru Singh might take away her nine-year-old son Gurpreet as was the practice among employers of bonded labourers. But at last, Baru Singh located her and said the debt had increased to Rs. 80,000. The problem is the employers in such cases pay such a low monthly rate to such labourers that they are hardly able to survive and have nothing to pay even the interest on the loan. Bondage becomes inevitable for their entire life. In Jasbir Kaur’s case, even village Gandav Panchayat and Gurdwara stood by landlord Baru Singh. The Gurdwara loudspeaker kept blaring that the recently widowed young woman would lose her one-room shed she called home if she was unable to return the Rs. 80,000 that her husband supposedly owed to the village landlord. It has to be noticed that a bonded labourer loses his/her freedom of mobility unlike the large mass of unorganised labour. This, therefore, should underline that the Central Trade Union Organisations’ (CTUOs) fighting for social security for the unorganised sector workers should also focus on the pitiable conditions of bonded labour who number 40 million in the country.
Another important phenomenon that has gone unnoticed is the high degree of bondage-related suicides in the districts of Sangrur, Bathinda and Mausa of Punjab. This should underline greater need of a separate focus on this social evil in the country as a whole.


Tribals migrate to work as bonded labourers

The Akhil Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram organisation, which works for the welfare of 10 crore Scheduled tribes in the country, in its National Executive Committee meeting at Howrah took a resolution recently to address the issue of bonded labour in India. Member S K Kaul, a retired IAS officer, brought a resolution regarding bonded labour prevailing in India even after 66 years of independence. The problems faced by Scheduled Tribes, who were being exploited as slaves, were highlighted at the meeting. Estimates about the number of bonded labourers in India vary from 40 million people according to Human Rights Watch, to 11.7 million according to the International Labour Organisation. Every year in November brick kiln workers, mostly tribals migrate from Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to escape abject poverty.
This ‘distress migration’ of tribal workers from the districts of Bolangir, Koraput, Kalahandi, and Kandhamal is estimated to be at least 2 lakhs for work in brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh by an NGO. The Committee decided to appeal to the district administration to identify and rehabilitate bonded labourers. The Executive Committee also took a resolution and appealed to social activists and workers of the Kalyan Ashram to take up the matter at the local level.
Source : The Shillong Times

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