slavery dalit

On 10th July 2019, India woke up to see the tragic image of a 70-year old man named Kasi falling at the feet of some Tamil Nadu district government officials, begging them to rescue him from a work site where he was kept as a ‘slave’. This image soon became viral in the social media and disturbed the conscience of many of the social media users. It is still being widely shared creating quite a furore! A question which many people asked in the comments section of those posts is that “didn’t we abolish slavery long ago?”.Many commentators were quick to conclude that slavery existed only in certain remote areas of some unknown regions!

Do we still have slavery?

According to some estimates, India has around 8 million people living in bondage. In other words, 6.1 victims of bonded labour exists for every thousand people! They are present in both rural and urban pockets, in un-organized industries such as brick kilns, stone quarries, coal mining, agricultural labour, circus and even in many households as domestic servants.According to the Union Ministry of Labor and Employment, as many as 13,512 bonded laborer were released and rehabilitated in the last four years – an average of nine bonded laborers daily!

Who is a bonded laborer?

Most bonded laborers are recruited and transported from poorer areas of India to work in situations of exploitation through violence, deception or coercion. They are forced to work against their will and consent.People can be trafficked for many different forms of exploitation such as forced prostitution, forced labor, forced begging, forced domestic work, forced marriage, forced organ removal and so on.Bonded labor is a form of forced labor where due to a debt or other obligation, the laborers forfeit certain freedoms and rights. This leaves them vulnerable to many abuses including physical, sexual and mental abuse. The reality is that:

  • Bonded Laboure’s are not being paid a proper salary
  • They are not allowed to move freely in and out of the facility
  • They are not allowed to work elsewhere and not allowed to go home also,without paying off the advance.
  • They are threatened and abused, if they try to leave their workplace

India has specific laws (such as Bonded Labor System Abolition Act) on outlawing bonded labor and regulating fair labor practices.Despite several laws and constitutional guarantees on individual freedoms and rights, India seems to have the problem of Bondage in almost all states. It is widely reported in states like UP and Bihar.

Why do we have slaves today?

All organizations – both government and non-government, which work for ending bonded labor agree that poverty is what drives people into bonded labor. We have been implementing numerous poverty alleviation programs ever since we started ‘planned development’ in India. Poor people were not able to access welfare programs mainly because of the existing power structure in many Indian villages which used force and violence to keep the poor in a state of fear and oppression. Social norms in the country justified such power equations and offered ‘impunity’ to perpetrators of such violent power structures.

Culture of Impunity

The concept of ‘impunity’should be understood with all its nuances. The popular meaning of Impunity is “exemption from punishment” or “escape from fines”. Impunity is the failure to bring perpetrators of crime to justice, resulting into denial of victims’ right to justice.

Jurisprudence offers multiple reasons for the inevitability of punishment – such as ‘deterrence’, ‘retribution’, ‘incapacitation’, ‘rehabilitation’ etc. We may differ on the manner or the degree of punishment. Nevertheless, society expects criminals to be punished or at least made accountable to their criminal act. Unfortunately, in many countries, offenders escape without punishment due to various reasons. We often hear George Orwell’s comment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, which is a deeply thoughtful commentary on totalitarianism, power, privilege and control.

In many countries, there is a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate crimes, especially criminal injustice suffered by the marginalized and poor. Many countries fail to take appropriate measures against the perpetrators of violence. They fail to prosecute, try and duly punish those suspected of criminal acts.They fail to provide victims with effective remedies and ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered.In that way, impunity is not a natural phenomenon, it is a byproduct of State’s failure to enforce the law.Since it is artificial and man-made, it is always possible to end the impunity enjoyed by the criminals.

Why there is rampant impunity in some countries?

Impunity is rampant in countries that lack a tradition of the rule of law. It is rampant in countries which suffer from widespread corruption. It is rampant in countries which have entrenched systems of patronage, or where the judiciary is weak or members of certain category of people are protected by social norms or special jurisdictions or immunities. Impunity is generally talked more in the International contexts, when people talk about violent armed conflicts. For example, people talk about impunity enjoyed by the armed forces in Myanmar. They hardly talk about the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of everyday violence in that country.Some people may talk about impunity enjoyed by the ruling regimes in autocratic states, for example in North Korea. We hardly hear about the everyday violence within the country. Impunity insuchmacro-contexts are very important and should definitely be addressed. But impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of everyday violence need much more attention!

Ending bonded labor by ending impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of everyday violence

Gary A Haugen has written an impressive book called Locust Effect.Based on evidence gathered from the developing world, he argues that ‘end of poverty in society requires end of everyday violence’. In a society where widespread violence exists, the poor find it impossible to access any of the welfare programs created by governments to eliminate poverty.

Ending ‘impunity’ enjoyed by perpetrators of everyday violence is a pre-requisite for ending violence and violent systems which normalizes systems like bonded labor. Poor people are the victims of such everyday violence. They are trafficked and kept in bondage for several years – and in some cases for generations, through systematic use of everyday violence.

Gary Haugan in his book further argued that nations must strengthen public justice systems to protect the poor from violence.States hold the ultimate responsibility to prevent crimes and to punish perpetrators through a court of law. Ending impunity is essential for human rights and dignity, the rule of law, democracy, and sustainable development.

Therefore, if we have to end slavery in 21st century, we need to address everyday violence widely prevalent in the country. In order to end everyday violence, we need to end impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of violence by ensuring the rule of law and by strengthening public justice systems in the country.

(Kandathil Sebastian is a social development professional, researcher, and author based in Delhi.)


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