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Bonded Labour

'Bonded labour', often an euphemism for slave labour, is found in several states, across several sectors of the economy. The first systematic survey of bonded labour in the country, carried out in 1978 by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the National Labour Institute, in 1000 villages in 10 states, estimated that the total number of 'bonded labourers' in the country was 2.62 million. A 1991 National Commission on Rural Labour, which studied the nature and incidence of 'bonded labour', found that the highest incidence was in agriculture; there was also a high incidence of bonded labour in stone quarries, brick kilns, among fishermen, in forest labour, the beedi industry, handloom carpet weaving units, among potters, weavers and head loaders and in match and fireworks production units.

Bound by debt and/or force, bonded labourers are found in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and at least three other states, according to March 31, 2004 figures of 'released' bonded labour of the Director General, Labour Welfare, Ministry of Labour, Government of India.

In Bundelkhand, incidence of bonded labour was reported in 1970 by Amir Hasan, district planning officer in Banda in the mid-1960s, who researched and wrote the first comprehensive socio-economic study of the Patha Kols, based on a survey of three villages [Hasan, pp 110-115].

In a sample of 26 families from these three villages, he found that 25 families were in debt; most had borrowed on the eve of a marriage in the family, or simply for subsistence. Nearly 80% of the borrowers were unable to repay from their income, and were compelled to work for the borrowers. In return, they were given 1 to 1.5 kilos of coarse grain each day as 'subsistence allowance'.

There was no escape from the forced labour unless the debt was cleared. One Bhaiya Lal, a Kol from Khichri village, had taken a loan of Rs 200 in 1962 from one Lachhman Das Bairagi of Manikpur. In a 1968 visit, Amir Hasan found that both Bhaiya Lal and his wife continued to work for Bairagi.

In case they did not work, they would be tortured. One of the methods of torture frequently resorted to is to pass chilli fumes (mirchi ka dhuan) in the nostrils.

In Sarhat village, Amir Hasan learnt from one Jhalla that he had borrowed Rs 72 from one Avadesh Gautam of the same village in 1963. By 1968, Jhalla had already paid Rs 112, but Gautam was demanding Rs 198 more. Jhalla continued to work for Gautam. 'Whenever he did not turn up, Gautam and his men tortured him by passing chilli vapour in his nostrils.' Creditors claimed other privileges as well.

After a Kol has been lent a sum of money, the creditor feels that not only has he the first claim on the Kol's labour, but also on his wife, sister or daughter whom he tries to use for his physical pleasure.

ABSSS founder Gopalbhai, who had worked with Amir Hasan on the field surveys, and his associates took up the issue of bonded labour in several forums. Legislation abolishing bonded labour was passed by the central government in 1976. In the post-Emergency period, a liberated media reported extensively on bonded labour. In these circumstances, the UP government constituted a study committee in 1978-79 under the chairmanship of economist BK Pandey, to identify bonded labourers in the Patha region.

The committee reportedly found 2900 bonded labourers in the Manikpur block of Chitrakoot district and 3300 bonded labourers in the neighbouring Shankargarh block of Allahabad district, but its report was not officially released by the government, and no action was taken.

Subsequently, from 1983 to 1996, several attempts to identify and 'release' bonded labourers were made in the Patha by different government authorities, with the help of ABSSS. In 1989, a young IAS officer, Arun Arya, dared to arrest one of Patha's prominent dadus who was found to have bonded labourers. The incident sent shock waves that led to the quick transfer of Arun Arya.

 
  A bonded labour released in 1996, Mataiya Kol does not feel like a free man even today

Living continually under the terror of 'dadus' (powerful landlords), very few bonded labourers identified themselves as such before government officials, even though they were offered some rehabilitation assistance. Most of those who did take up the offer, found themselves in a very weak position. ABSSS hoped to win a salutary battle in the case of Mataiya Kol in 1998, but even though the organisation emerged victorious, Mataiya did not feel like a free man even ten years later.

Born in the estate of a 'dadu' in Markundi village of Manikpur block, Mataiya inherited bondage from his parents who worked for the dadu, like 40 other Kol families of the village who worked for one or the other of village's five dadus.

As ABSSS found out when it took up his case, Mataiya had been working for the dadu, from the age of 12, from the crack of dawn till late night. When he got married, his wife had joined him. They had no choice. If they did not work, they faced lathi blows. Work for the dadu was the only source of food for Mataiya, his wife and two children. The dadu gave grain as wages, and the family ate rotis with salt. They had one set of torn clothes and apart from their hut in the dadu's estate and some utensils, they owned nothing. Mataiya had inherited some land, but the dadu had taken over that too.

In 1996, Mataiya dared to identify himself as a bonded labourer before the district administration. He got a grant of Rs 20,000 and he could think of cultivating his land. It was then he learnt that the dadu had taken a loan for a pumpset in Mataiya's name, by mortgaging his land. The loan was not repaid. With interest, the dues came to nearly Rs 20,000. The land was put for auction to recover the money. The auction was held hurriedly, and several dadus entered the fray, only to ensure that Mataiya became landless.

When it came to know of this, ABSSS quickly arranged for some money and entered the auction through a proxy. After several rounds of bidding, the dadus gave up. The proxy paid the money, the fraudulent loan against Mataiya's name was struck off, and Mataiya got clear possession of his land in 1998.  But, in 2007, he said, he still lived in tension. 'The big landlords continue to harass me one way or the other. I have to stay away from them.'

ABSSS workers say that while bonded labourers continue to be found in the Patha region, the form of bondage has changed. It is claimed that use of force has reduced; the relationship that appears to exist between masters and servants matches a paradoxical British colonial description of the relationship between a group of agricultural labourers called kamias and their 'maliks' in Gaya district of Bihar; the British called it 'voluntarily entered bondage'.

In 1992-1993 itself, when ABSSS conducted a house-to house survey of Kol families in three blocks, it found that in many cases, both parties involved in the practice worked towards its perpetuation. While landlords and forest contractors advanced loans to their Kol slaves, without waiting for repayment of earlier loans, the Kols willingly continued to work for their masters, without complaint. The ABSSS survey report attributed this to force of tradition, and the fact that the practice gave guaranteed employment to the Kols.

Significantly, the survey reported that in the near past there had been an increase in the number of bonded labourers, and there seemed to be no correlation between assets owned and the condition of bondage; some bonded Kols had more than one hectare of land.

In the absence of any systematic survey on the issue since the mid-1990s, we have no way of estimating how many Kols continue to work within this system of 'voluntary bonded labour'. According to 2002 BPL Survey data, 2% to 5% of rural households across Bundelkhand districts reported being in bondage. However, the figures are suspect. Many persons/families working under 'voluntary bonded labour' do not recognise it as such; they do not see any inequity in the practice. This is understandable when we see how it works.  

On the basis of research findings from six MP villages, including two villages from Tikamgarh, from data obtained in 2001-02 and 2003-4, Priya Deshingkar and John Farrington described the chief features of 'voluntary bonded labour', which is known as 'hali' in MP [Deshingkar, p 10 ].

The bonded labourers may be young men from outside the village or local families who also provide domestic service. The 'bond' is in the form of an advance of the full season's salary. Accommodation and food is also provided by the employer. Mostly importantly, income is guaranteed; this is 'particularly attractive' during drought, as also in other times due to general reduction in agricultural labour opportunities.

However, we must remember that such benefits are mainly attractive to the very poorest and vulnerable, who are in a very weak position to negotiate terms with regard to working hours and conditions. This is the situation exploited by the employer, for ensuring guaranteed supply of labour.

Similar conditions exist in Bundelkhand's numerous quarries and open mines, which are a ready source of employment to anyone who is desperate and willing to work. However, unlike locations of 'hali' work, conditions in mines are harsh, and in many sites, labourers are virtually cut off from the world.

Maya Saket of Damini Samiti, an NGO that worked under the PACS Programme in the Bharatkoop area of Chitrakoot, where there are many quarries and stone crusher units, says that no outsider is allowed to go anywhere close to hill slope sites away from main roads, where blasting and preliminary cutting of stone is done. Scores of accidents take place regularly but are not reported by employers or even affected persons, she adds.

Shatrugan, a field worker at Damini, attributed this to the 'generosity' shown by the quarry owners.

They often give the labourers houses and provide interest-free loans for marriages. They also provide advances when there is a slack period in the business. As a result, the labourers are not interested in raising their voice. They would rather suffer an accident than lose their source of livelihood.

References:

  • Hasan Amir, The Kols of Patha, Kitab Mahal, Allahabad: 1972
  • Deshingkar Priya, Farrington John,  'Rural Labour Markets and Migration in South Asia: Evidence from India and Bangladesh', Background Paper for the World Development Report 2008, Overseas Development Institute, London: November 2006

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