Although India has long banned forced and bonded labour, the inhumane practice persists, with regular reports of adults and children being trapped in debt bondage to unscrupulous employers.
Modern day slavery still rampant in India
Addressing the 400th birthday anniversary celebrations of famous Indian battle commander Lachit Barphukan on 25 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the history of India was not just about slavery but also about its warriors. “The history of India is not just about slavery. The history of India is about emerging victorious, it is about the valour of countless greats, about standing against tyranny with unprecedented valour and courage,” he said.
Although bonded labour was banned in India in 1976 under Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution, it is still prevalent in many forms. Millions of men, women and children continue
to be exploited in conditions reminiscent of the days of slavery.
Bonded labour is a practice in which employers give high-interest loans to workers who work at low wages to pay off the debt. It was historically associated with rural economies where peasants from economically-disadvantaged communities were required to work for rural and farming landlords.
However, it is now prevalent in both rural and urban areas in various unorganised industries, such as brick kilns, stone quarries, coal mining, agricultural labour, domestic servitude, circuses and sexual slavery.
The majority of bonded labourers are migrant workers who leave impoverished states, such as Bundelkhand, Bihar and Jharkhand, in search of work.
In brick kilns, for example, entire families are allotted a piece of land by the owner and work as a team digging the earth and wetting it with water to make the mud suitable for the brick moulding process. Shruti Nagvanshi, a women’s and child’s rights activist who was one of the founders of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, said that during the brick moulding process, whole families are engaged, including young children.
Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7 of ending forced labour, human trafficking and child labour, India is obliged to end modern slavery by 2030.
India has also ratified the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105).
In addition, the country aspires to improve its ranking in the Global Slavery Index produced by the Walk Free international human rights group, where it was ranked a poor 53rd out of 167 countries for the prevalence of modern slavery in the year 2018.
‘Eight million people living in modern slavery in India’
However, according to Global Slavery Index 2018, on any given day in 2016 there were nearly eight million people living in modern slavery in India. This is defined as situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or cannot leave because of threats, violence, deception, abuse of power or other forms of coercion. It includes forced labour (people being forced to work against their will under the threat of some form of punishment or penalty); bonded labour (also known as debt bondage, where a person is loaned – or borrows – money and is then required to work until they pay off the debt); forced commercial sexual exploitation of adults and children; and forced marriage.
In India, common examples include forced or bonded labour in brick kilns and the carpet, glassware and bangle-making industries, and children working as domestic helpers in homes or at roadside food stalls. However, many activists who campaign against modern slavery and bonded labour believe these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, cases of bonded labour are regularly reported by the Indian media.
In November, as many as 43 bonded labourers – all hailing from the Scheduled Castes – were freed from the clutches of landlords in Sheikhpura district of Bihar.
Many of them had been working for more than 20 years in deplorable conditions, were not allowed to move freely, threatened with severe consequences if they left, and were given just 4kg to 5kg of rice instead of a minimum wage, which is currently set at Rs 335 a day.
They were freed on 22 October after the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), acting on a complaint by a civil society organisation, wrote to Sheikhpura district magistrate Sawan Kumar about the issue.
“All the rescued labourers were working in farms of the accused on a grain-based system of remuneration. The government will provide Rs 30,000 to each of them as compensation. We have registered an FIR [a first information report reporting the crime to the police] against the accused,” said Kumar.
Lenin Raghuvanshi, national convener of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, warned that men, women and children are being forced to work as bonded labourers in brick kilns and the bangle-making industry.
The problem of bonded or forced labour also affects Indian workers who have migrated (or been encouraged to move with promises of paid work) to other nearby countries for work. In an incident reported by Indian media in November 2022, official authorities in the Rautahat District of Nepal rescued at least 38 Indian people, including 20 men, 18 women and reportedly some children, who were working as bonded labours in a brick factory there.
The rescue operation was conducted after police officers received a tip-off that a group of workers from Uttar Pradesh (UP) were working as bonded labourers in the Aman brick factory in the Paroha Municipality of Rautahat District, Press Trust of India (PTI) reported.
According to the police, men and women from different parts of UP are employed at Rautahat’s brick kilns.
Many of them continue to work despite the poor working conditions, although some do decide to leave in search of better job opportunities and conditions.
Supreme Court rules that bonded labour is illegal
Meanwhile, in various rulings in recent years, the Supreme Court in India has re-stated that no one should be forced to provide labour or service against their will, even if this is under an agreed contract of service, as it offends the basic human right of dignity. The country’s judges have issued judgments stating there should be no servility or involuntary servitude in a free democratic India, which recognises the dignity of the individual and the value of the human being.
In 1985, acting on a writ petition from a human rights group that highlighted the plight of migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the Supreme Court ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to monitor the fulfilment of the objectives of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, which makes all forms of bonded labour illegal.
The court also called for various measures to be taken to eradicate bonded labour in India. These included the government ensuring that ‘vigilance committees’ are established at district and sub-divisional levels to ensure enforcement of the Act’s ban on bonded labour and associated penalties for those who breach it; ensuring that the authorities responsible for enforcing the ban on bonded labour understand how to carry out their duties efficiently; and for states and union territories to draw up plans to rehabilitate released bonded labourers, either by themselves or with the aid of an appropriate non-governmental organisation (NGO).
However, when assessing the situation faced by the bonded migrant labourers in Madhya Pradesh in the specific case in 1985, the court concluded that unless the authorities drew up and implemented an adequate exit plan to rehabilitate the bonded labourers, simply releasing them from their bonded labour conditions would only leave them languishing in the streets without any source of livelihood.
More recently, in November 2022, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court issued a notice to the central and state governments warning them about a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that had been submitted to the court calling for a series of “directions for the eradication of child labour in Tamil Nadu and for the rehabilitation of children rescued from bonded labour”.
According to the Indian Express, the litigant who submitted the PIL, KR Raja – a lawyer and human rights campaigner from Madurai – told the court that a survey conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour in March 2021 showed that child labour had increased by 180 per cent in the state of Tamil Nadu compared to 2020.
Raja added that the central government had asked states like Tamil Nadu to admit children rescued from child labour into schools and the rescued children are also entitled to compensation and other reliefs under various schemes for their rehabilitation.
However, he claimed that most of the rescued children are simply being kept under the safe custody of government homes without any consideration of their future and called on the court to intervene. The case has been postponed until a later date yet to be announced.
Positive examples of the rehabilitation of bonded workers
However, on a positive note, there have been many examples of the rehabilitation of bonded labourers.
For instance, in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district, located to the north of the capital city of Chennai, which has long been notorious for the prevalence of bonded labour, around 100 emancipated labourers and their families are now shaping their own future, by co-owning and operating a brick kiln, reports the Indian Express. The enterprise was launched earlier this year by the district administration.
The workers – who were rescued from debt bondage from local employers – are primarily members of the Irula community that falls under the Scheduled Tribe category.
District Collector Dr Alby John Varghese first proposed the idea in February this year, the Indian Express reported. An official opening ceremony for the brick kiln took place in April, and June marked the start of the kiln’s first fire. By the end of July, the unit had produced 82,000 bricks, valued at around Rs 700,000. Approximately half of the total production – 41,000 bricks – was sold to projects under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) scheme.
According to Dr Varghese, the revenue department regularly purchases bricks from this kiln for the PMAY scheme. Therefore, as demand for the kiln’s bricks is guaranteed, the workers can be certain they will receive payment for their work.
‘Modern slavery rising across the world’
However, recent research suggests that globally, the number of people in modern slavery – including forced labour – has risen sharply in the last five years. The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report, issued in September 2022 by International Labour Organization, Walk Free and the International Organisation for Migration, found that 49.6 million people around the world were living in modern slavery on any given day in 2021 – compared to 40.3 million when the previous global estimates were produced in 2016.
Of the 49.6 million people living in modern slavery today, over 27 million are in forced labour and 22 million are in forced marriage. Women and children remain disproportionately vulnerable to modern slavery, the report adds, with almost one in eight of all those in forced labour being children. Of the 27.5 million people in forced labour, 15.1 million are in Asia and the Pacific region, which includes India.
Commenting on the report, ILO director-general Guy Ryder said: “It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving. Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights.
“We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulation are fundamental. But governments cannot do this alone. International standards provide a sound basis, and an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed. Trade unions, employers’ organisations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”
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