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One of the few good things that emerged out of the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was the Bonded Labour System(Abolition) Act of 1976 which replaced an ordinance of the same name which was enacted in 1975. In fact, eradication of bonded labour was one of the famous 20-point programme that Mrs. Gandhi implemented and monitored during the emergency. In fact, the department that monitored this eventually evolved into the ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation. The Program Implementation Division of the Ministry still has the responsibility by a quirk of history, the responsibility of monitoring a 20-point programme, though sadly the list no longer includes bonded labour. Sadly, after the emergency was lifted in 1977 and the Janata Party came to power, the Act slipped into oblivion. After Mrs. Gandhi was reelected in 1980, he priorities had shifted, and she no longer focused on Bonded Labour and after her assassination, the drive to eradicate Bonded Labour permanently went into decline and that is the case till today.

Of course, that does not mean that Bonded Labour has gone away. It still thrives and survives, aided by a now indifferent establishment which has other priorities and often perceives Bonded Labour to be extinct. Bonded labor exists for a variety of reasons, which still exist in society. In fact, the system of bonded labour, as prevalent in Indian society, is a relic of feudal hierarchical society. The ‘bonded labour system’ is an exploitative relationship between a creditor and a debtor who obtains loan owing to economic compulsions that he faces in his day-to-day life and because of these compulsions agrees to live by the terms dictated by the creditor, who effectively becomes his owner.

The 1976 Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act defines ‘bonded labour’ as “the system of forced labour wherein a debtor enters into an agreement with a lender that he would work for the lender either by himself or through any member of his family or a dependent, till such time either without wages or for a very nominal one, to repay the loan that had been taken. At the time the Act was enacted, the bonded labour system was mostly found among agricultural la­bourers in villages, though today it is to be found in a range of industries, mostly in the unorganized sector – workers working in stone quarries, brick kilns, bidi factories, glass factories and in detergent carpet, gem stones and many other such industries.

Modernized methods of agriculture, which include increased mechanization and a greater emphasis on cash-cropping, have had several effects. First, demand for labourers has declined overall and become more seasonal. Many workers will take advances against their salaries and must then work the full season to receive the rest of the remuneration, should any be deemed to be owed. Wages may be particularly low and the conditions of repayment of the debt or advance particularly exploitative. Many workers will not know the extent of their debt with employers or landlords using the lack of transparency to further exploit the workforce. A whole family may work to pay off one debt with children working for free. Second the development of transportation infrastructure has enabled landlords to recruit workers from outside their villages and provided more labourers with the means to migrate.

Migrant labourers are more vulnerable to bondage and exploitation due to unfamiliar surroundings, their status as migrants, lack of social networks, language barriers and tight surveillance and other forms of control exhibited by employers. For instance, the Bengali workers from Kokrajhar district of Assam working in brick-kilns in Punjab live in isolated locations, hardly communicate with the local community, and have little social support in times of emergencies. They must rely totally on the employers, who restrict their movements at their will. In India, bonded labour is practiced in agriculture, silk farms and industries, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, quarries and mines, forest work, match and firework industries, tea and cardamom farming, brick-kilns, shrimp farming, bidi (cigarette industry, domestic work, and textiles. Workers involved in power and handlooms, artificial gems work, shrimp farms, and weaving factories are particularly vulnerable to in bondage.

Further changes to bonded labour are occurring. Historically, the work arrangement between the worker and his ostensible employee required all members of labourers’ families to work for the employers, and individual family members did not need to establish such contracts with the employers. Women and girls are now, however, increasingly bonded. They are often bonded in domestic work, fish-processing, silk farming, bangle production, carpet making, and weaving industries. Women, in equal numbers to men, also work in quarries. There is also evidence that male emigration from one state of India to another has also pushed women into bondage in commercial agriculture. The singularity of women increasingly being bonded on their own and not just as a member of a family unit is now discussed to as ‘feminization of bonded labour’. In bonded labour, the labourers lose their freedom at the very onset when they are recruited.

The absence or lack of labour standards paves the way for unequal power relationships between labourers and employers and increases the latter’s control over the former. This is exacerbated within the informal or unregulated sector. Debt – which binds the worker to a contractor and/or an employer – is the primary but not sole method of control. When recruitment is carried out locally, employers tend to pay loan advances to workers. As labourers and recruiters generally originate from the same areas, recruiters are better able to intimidate labourers if the ‘contract’ is broken. If labourers migrate, contractors or middlemen arrange a loan advance and make travel arrangements to the worksites. The contracts, often verbal, are made in the labourer’s place of origin and the cost of travel is added to the loan-advance. This loan quickly becomes a debt which cannot be repaid.

Since the late 90s, the Indian economy has become increasingly deregulated and this has led to the erosion of labour rights, and in extreme circumstances to an increase in bonded labour. Some scholars argue that the process of creating a deregulated economy, which they refer to as informalization, is highly accelerated by the effects of economic globalization. Globalization is, they argue, the trans-national movement of capital, and the global trade of cheap labour, materials and services. Production or service units are located where cheap labour is readily available. This can clearly provide opportunities for countries and their citizens to work their way out of poverty when inward investment occurs. Conversely, however, the competition between countries to provide lower cost bases of production to business can be a driver for the development of an informal, less regulated labour market when the concerns of national governments become attainment of inward investment to the exclusion of focused poverty and inequality alleviation. In such situations this can increase the risk of exploitative working conditions.

Bonded labour must be attacked from many fronts. Enforcement of the law is essential, but it is not enough. The bonded labour must have someplace else to go. The elimination of current debt bondage and the prevention of new or renewed bondage therefore, require a combination of concerted government action and extensive community involvement.

Bonded labour is a vast, pernicious, and longstanding social evil and the tenacity of the Bonded Labour System must be attacked with similar tenacity. Anything less than total commitment is certain to fail.

Shantanu Dutta is a former Air Force Officer and a Development Worker for the last 25 years

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