Women in India Fight for The Freedom of Workers Under ‘Bonded Labour’

By Sowmya Sivakumar,Womens Feature Service

‘Bonded labour’ was an evil of the past. But recent testimonies of a few courageous women whose families have been going through years of tribulation in the tribal belt of the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border proved to be a rude reminder.

The supposedly-abolished practice is flourishing like it had always done. A ban was formulated against it called the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

It was at a ‘dharna’ (sit-in) in Jaipur in October on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), staged by groups like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) led by Aruna Roy. These women from the Sahariya and adivasi-inhabited districts of Baran, Jhalawar and Bundi in Rajasthan, described the painful realities of bonded labor. They were brought to the venue with the help of activists Mamta Bai and Gyarsi Bai, of the Jagrut Mahila Sangathan in Baran.

Om Prakash migrated too to Iklera and soon after Om Prakash started working as a ‘hali’ for Hansraj Dhakkad for a mere Rs 1,500 (US$1=Rs 45) a month. Worse, he got paid just Rs 200 a month and 20 kilos of wheat. He was constantly told that the balance amount would be paid later. Badly in need of money, Om Prakash borrowed Rs 4,000 from Hansraj. Thus began a vicious cycle of debt, which quickly trapped him into bondage.

What does being bonded really mean? Om Prakash’s story sheds some light. He worked for Hanraj for three years. Instead of receiving money, he was told that his debt with the landlord was only rising. At the end of the first year, he was told that he still owed Rs 5,000, which included the interest, food provided and penalties for leave. Om Prakash wanted to give up the work but was told that he could not do that unless he paid up. He had no way out.

Om Prakash simply was overworked. He couldn’t work and Hansraj ‘sold’ to him to his brother, Chauthmal, for Rs 11,500. His miseries mounted as his daughter fell ill and he had to borrow another Rs 2,000. He also had to donate blood for her treatment. Already weakened, he collapsed and could not go to work for a couple of days. The two brothers then went to his house and began to demand payments from him. They said he owed them Rs 20,000 and that if he could not pay up, he had to get up and work on their fields.

Om Prakash mustered up the little strength he had left. He went to work and ill again the next day. At that point, the two brothers dragged him to Chauthmal’s house and beat him until he bled from his nose and mouth. They threatened him saying that he had better pay up otherwise they would extract the debt from his wife, Geetha.

According to Om Prakash, around 25 others in his village are in a similar situation. Other stories involving bondage were also related during the ‘dharna’. After listening to these testimonies, a fact-finding team of activists and journalists visited Iklera.

According to the local community, every village in the Sahariya belt of Baran is likely to have a minimum of 20-25 bonded workers.

However, Naveen Jain, District Collector of Baran, is not convinced that these were indeed cases of bonded labour.

The district administration was pressured to issue certificates declaring men like Om Prakash as bonded labourers and free them from any debt or bond they had with their employers. He also distributed wheat to the families, issued job cards to them and made work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act available to them in Iklera.

Ultimately, it was because of the courage of women like Chota Bai and the commitment of grassroots activists like Mamta Bai and Gyarsi Bai who brought them to Jaipur. Om Prakash and others like him could finally gain their freedom.

One can quibble over whether the ‘hali’ system prevalent in the Sahariya belt of Rajasthan is different from bonded labour. But it clearly represents a violation of human rights and can only be condemned.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, defines the bonded labour system as the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor.