Edit/Op-Ed

Plight of Bonded Labourers in Democratic India

Naiyar Azam for BeyondHeadlines

The plight of the bonded labourers is not unseen to the external world. Slavery flourished in the globalized world due to unequal distribution of resources. Hence, an individual who cannot afford basic amenities i.e. food, clothing, shelter may force to indulge   in bonded labour. The other reasons in the country are also the very caste   system, untouchability and sahukari which compel poor people to work as bonded labour. Trafficking has opened a new avenue for lucrative business without any investment for racketeers who promise these people for a better job and living. This is such a pathetic state of affair even after the formation of UN in 1945 and Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; we have not achieved the desired goal. Although, The Bonded Labour   Abolition Act 1976 criminalizes the practice but it is still widely prevalent across the country in some forms or other.

A person can fall into a situation of bonded labour through a loan, by customary obligation, or by force. While the causal factors are manifold, primarily in our context extreme poverty, unemployment and illiteracy are the main contributing factors towards vulnerability to bonded labour. In the context of states the plight of bonded labourers is embedded within the socio-cultural and economic power structure and the victim often has to suffer mental and economic abuse in lieu of social exclusion, physical & sexual abuse, loss of physical mobility and denial of basic human rights.

Our very constitution has guaranteed the right to life with dignity as a fundamental right. But this very right has been violated since inception of the constitution and still going on. These bonded labourers are mostly either schedule caste or schedule tribes or poor people from other castes/community. There is very little number from other communities who are forcefully involved in bonded labour. Mostly bonded labours work in bricks making industry on daily wage. No social security is being provided to them in case of any untoward situation.

Despite India’s significant economic development, almost 90% plus of the country’s work force still works in the informal sector. There is no regulation to safe guard their rights and provide them a scene of social security. This makes them far more vulnerable to poor working conditions, abuse and exploitation. They often receive wages far below the minimum wage recommended by the government authorities and are at great risk of becoming bonded labourers. Workers become bonded when they accept illegally high-interest loans from employers or money lenders. They then have to work at very low wages or for nothing at all, to pay off the debt which may lead to suicidal attempt in many cases and end of life.

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The tribal dominated states i.e. Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh are most vulnerable and at the same time lack education, awareness and leadership to tackle the issue.  Human Trafficking is rampant from these states to major cities in the name of employment but those who are trafficked are forced to work as bonded labour most often as domestic help or forced into flesh trade/prostitution with the support of local agents. It’s a global issues though India is a hot spot and at the centre of the centre. According to a recent report, 33,000 children have been trafficked from the state of Jharkhand to different parts of the country in the name of employment and better living. Most of the traffickers run illegal placement agencies to provide domestic helps for affluent households of the cities.

The caste system has also contributed more in making communities vulnerable, forcing people to work with lesser wages or in hazardous condition without any social security. Sexual violence is also very common by Sahukar or money lenders to these community but they hardly raise a voice against it due to fear of losing the job. Law enforcement agencies role have always been dubious to these people to get help. These agencies are hardly accessible by these communities. Though there might be an exception that some policemen or some officers have taken action against exporters.

The condition of Industrial labour force is also not very different. In spite of the fact that they are largely working in urban setting in a little better infrastructure but there is no social security for them. That is the main reason that India attracts global companies to establish their production unit. The recent move of Government of India’s flagship programme “Make in India” is to attract global manufacturing companies for establishing their production centres here due to cheap labour availability. The new regime also trying to overlook the pathetic situation of industrial labour force even they have not access to basic living standard to live a dignified life. They confined into a certain condition where they are forced to live within the boundaries, purchase ration from landlord shop only, can’t joined the labour union of their choices, can’t access basic health services, live in health hazard conditions without minimum basic sanitation facilities and their women are forced to defecate inside the room where they live with at least four roommates in a 8*10 0r 10*10 rooms even they take bath too inside the room. Toilets have been made on average 40-50 people per toilets even though they are not maintained a basic minimum hygiene. The world business leaders are investing in Make in India purely because of cheap labour availability without any risk or providing social security which will provide the benefit of many folds to its actual investment.

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At large, we need to recognize that we as a civil society have failed to raise the genuine concerns before the governments. Government always works for the betterment of affluent class. They hardly take care of these deprived community though government have started some social welfare scheme for their betterment but that is not enough and also  has not been implemented in a proper way to eradicate poverty or empower poor. Media has its own biased view and they hardly cover stories directly connected to the benefit of the deprived section of society.  Several mechanisms have been devised to handle the situation but failed to curb on this because the implementing agencies are either not competent enough or lack the will to stop this. Even government has not appointed labour inspector for a long time e.g. in Delhi, there are only 8 Labour Inspector to check all across the Delhi which is next to impossible. This shows the government attitude towards labour welfare. In the meanwhile, government is in mood to amend the labour law and bring new policy which will be more industry friendly instead of ensuring zero discrimination and guaranteeing social security.

As far as trafficking is concerned, a PIL has been field in Jharkhand High Court regarding confiscation of the properties of the traffickers. During 4th Anti-Trafficking conclave in Ranchi, Chief Minister Raghubar Das has also pointed out that “A law will be formulated to confiscate the properties of traffickers that would be developed into training and rehabilitation centre for trafficking victims”. It will be a good initiative and will boost up confidence the marginalized group in government.

People are at risk not just because they are illiterate and poverty stricken with limited means of livelihood, but also because they lack information about available welfare schemes and any knowledge of their fundamental rights and entitlements accorded to them by the law of the land. The problem of bonded labour is especially complicated due to poor understanding among people at risk about the legal definition of bonded labour and constitutional protection and support that victims can avail. Moreover, most stakeholders in support systems are also unaware about the prevalence and the various manifestations of the problem, while others remain oblivious to the provisions within the Act.

People who are at the highest risk often live in the most marginalized and media dark areas. Since they are poorest of the poor, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation due to lack of any semblance of financial solvency or financial access.  Moreover, they live in isolated villages which are typically media dark. Some villages are so remote that they fall well outside of range of any wireless mobile connectivity.

Recognizing the great impact of media penetration at all level in different forms e.g. nukkad natak, wall paintings in villages, folk songs on the theme of bonded labour, etc may be effective medium to communicate with the populations at risk. Engaging community based media; involving college students (NSS/NCC cadre), etc are also effective and will have good impact to create awareness on the issues related to bonded labour. The government/s must recognize that without educating the exploiters, the problem of bonded labours and bondage may not be achieved. Most importantly, we need to sensitize the local law enforcement agencies e.g. police, local govt. body and of course the senior officers at local level to tackle the situation with great sensitivity. In short, we need to involve all stake holders to take their part in order to achieve the desired goals and curb on bondage in many forms.

(Writer is associated with EmCom Media and can be reached at emcommedia@gmail.com)

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