Of human bondage

 

In the shadows of Punjab’s fabled agricultural prosperity, Jagir Singh has worked as a siri or bonded labourer for most of his life. He was just a child when his father, himself a siri, took a loan and placed his son in bondage with a rich farmer, with whom he worked for 25 years. He never went to school, nor did his three brothers who were also bonded. When his father died, his employer organised his funeral but added the expenses to Jagir’s debt. His debt bondage never ends.

 

Almost nine in 10 workers in India labour in the informal sector — unorganised, poorly paid, without job security, and also unshielded by most labour law protections. This is better known. But what is less acknowledged is that at least one in 10 workers in contemporary India continues to work in conditions of labour un-freedoms, called bonded labour. Bonded workers toil for extremely low wages and exploitatively long hours against usurious debt advances, but are blocked by force from changing their employers in search of better work conditions. Social scientist Jan Breman, who has studied bonded labour in India for many decades, estimates that this system, a form of labour employment akin to modern slavery, is the fate of at least 10 per cent of India’s workforce.

 

The conditions of bonded workers in India today, and the ways in which the new economy has adapted to this essentially feudal form of intense labour oppression, is described in the India Exclusion Report of the Centre for Equity Studies. Apart from agriculture, bonded labour is found among workers in stone quarries, brick kilns, traditional sex workers, fisher-folk, forest labourers, bidi-makers, carpet makers, weavers, head-loaders and children in matches and fireworks factories.

India enacted a strong and progressive statute outlawing bonded labour in 1976, which provides for discharging the full bonded debt, freeing and rehabilitating the bonded worker, and punishing the employer. But, as with much of India’s progressive labour law regime, this law too has been subverted by a corrupt and indifferent bureaucracy; also because the basic cause of bondage located in intense poverty and need for credit among poor rural communities has not changed despite growth in the rest of the economy.

 

Bondage is primarily the fate of Dalits and Adivasis, who constitute around 85 per cent of all bonded workers. Jagir is also a Mazhabi Dalit Sikh. ‘In a typical arrangement’, according to the CES report, ‘a labourer takes an advance from a farmer and in return becomes bonded to that person for a specified period’. Advances may be for marriages, religious ceremonies or medical emergencies.

 

‘In most cases, the bonded labourer works extremely long hours without any leave for the farmer, performing whatever tasks are required in the fields or at the farmer’s home. In case the labourer misses a day of work, the farmer typically adds a monetary penalty to his loan. Since he or she can’t seek work anywhere else, the labourer is also completely dependent on the farmer for any monetary or in-kind assistance, all of which is also added onto the loan. As a result, by the time a labourer finishes with the initial period of bondage, he or she ends up owing a substantial sum to the farmer. In the absence of funds to repay this loan, the labourer is often forced to work for the farmer for an additional year, during which he or she slips even further into debt… Due to the unfavourable conditions of the loan and the opaque way in which it is administered, it is extremely difficult for the labourer to escape from this cycle of bondage. In some cases, bonded labourers may pay off their debt by taking an advance from another farmer and become bonded to him’. This is what Jagir did, but his basic destiny remains unchanged.

 

The report talks of new forms of bondage, what Breman describes as ‘neo-bondage’. This involves shorter periods of bondage, and a person often changes many employers in a lifetime, in contrast to a generation earlier in which bondage was often to a single household for a lifetime. The employer now feels unfettered from even the feudal forms of protection of the bonded worker of the past, such as ensuring that he or his family does not starve. It is, in many ways, the worst of both worlds, of feudal and capitalist relations.

 

Bonded workers are unable to escape their destinies of lifelong unfree toil because of feudal subordination, their continued need for further debt, and sometimes physical violence. In December 2013, a labour contractor chopped off the hands of two labourers from Kalhandi district of Orissa, when other members of their group escaped their captors.

 

As the report observes, India’s poorest and socially most vulnerable communities fall into bondage for many reasons. Most are bonded, with little access to formal credit, and when they fall ill or need money for life’s passages of marriage and death, they have no option except to turn to scandalously usurious moneylenders. New bondage is further spurred by the desperation of millions of India’s footloose distress migrants, engaged in what Breman calls ‘circuits of labour’. Employers prefer to employ migrants, because they can be paid less, and are less assertive and organised than local labour.

 

But ultimately bonded labour survives also because of grim and unconscionable state complicity. Most governments deny the existence of bondage, and hardly a single bonded labour employer has been punished to date. What is needed are much higher levels of public investment in agriculture to spur rural employment, formal rural credit to replace oppressive private moneylenders and reliable implementation of wage-employment guarantees to push this shameful form of slavery into history. Otherwise, Jagir Singh who entered bondage as a young child will die in bondage.

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