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Millennium Post

Of bondage and lost childhoods

Keeping a worker in bondage in 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 65 years of Independence and 35 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. Exact number of world’s and India’s bonded labourers was not immediately available from 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 released last year, 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 bonded labour system.

The objective of the above said organisations is stated 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 a legitimate job doing. 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 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 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.

One, Gurnail Singh, working as bonded labour in Patiala in Punjab, got 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’s problems did not end after he was rescued as bonded agricultural labour. After gaining freedom, he started plying 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, making it almost difficult for him to earn for his family.

Gurnail had actually agreed to work as an agriculture labour with Karam in return for Rs 5,000 loan borrowed about five years ago. He, a father of five, lived in one room house in Nainkalan village in Patiala (Punjab). According to Gurnail, he had to be available with his employer for work 24 hours.

He used to spray chemicals and fertilisers on 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 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. Social activists engaged in rescuing bonded labour have umpteen stories to narrate. The Gurnail and Jasbir Kaur (female) were not isolated incidents. Jai Singh told The Hindu that bonded labour is a thriving practice in Punjab.

Jasbir Kaur’s case is much more painful. Her 35-year-old husband Avtar Singh had taken a loan of Rs 45,000 four 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 wanted to be relieved during paddy harvesting season, there was altercation between Avtar 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. At last, Baru Singh found her out and said the debt had increased to Rs 80,000.

It has to be noticed that a bonded labourer loses his freedom of mobility unlike the large mass of unorganised labour. This, therefore, should underline that the central trade union organisations’ fight for social security for the unorganised sector workers should also focus on the pitiable conditions of bonded labour who number at 40 million in the country. (IPA)
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