India’s Ignorance Over The Bonded Labour System Exacerbates Caste Differences

India’s bonded labourers are caught between an entrenched caste system and a dismissive state. 

Ever since the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown, social media timelines and primetime news slots have been flooded by images migrant labourers from different parts of the country taking arduous on-foot journeys back home. Reminiscent of the partition era, when refugees were forced to shif their entire household within the span of a few hours, the groups of migrants can be seen walking on highways, with the entirety of their belongings on their shoulders. The scene has evoked a strong backlash, with many arguing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's seemingly proactive steps in flattening the cure, and containing the spread of COVID-19, did not account for the informal, migrant labourer that makes up a majority of India's economically productive population.  

With 90% of India's population working in the informal economy, the migrants whose lives have currently been left hanging by a shoestring are mostly made up those working either in construction sites, or in brick kilns, and not only come from economically poor backgrounds but also belong to marginalised social backgrounds such as the scheduled castes, or scheduled tribes. Earning less than the daily wage, the recent pandemic has laid bare the uncertainty of their livelihood. One labourer lamented, "I earn 600 rupees every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can't see my children hungry." The nature of the unplanned lockdown, then, perpetuates the same invisibiliation that the migrant labour class has endured within the capitalist system, which has cementified pre-existing social hierarchies and marginalised further, those who are already in precarious social positions. The nature of the bonds that bind this migrant labour, then, calls for a re-examination.

Forced and bonded labour was abolished through the Bonded Labour Slavery (Absolishing) Act in 1976. Yet, according to the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, the last four years  have seen an estimated 13,512 bonded labourers released and rehabilitated. September 2019, alone, saw rescue operations freed a total of 43 bonded labourers across Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Though bonded labour systems still exist in such large numbers, the state has done little to remedy the situation.

This neglectful state of affairs has allowed organised networks of those employing (and supplying) bonded labourers to take advantage of social hierarchies. According to a United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on modern slavery, forced and bonded labour systems in Asian countries, such as India are rooted in older social discriminatory patterns. That is, those who end up in the vicious cycle of bonded labour are mostly from socially marginalised groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 

This reading list examines the layers of exclusion that mark the bonded labour system and how the state exacerbates marginalisation. 

Caste Bias in the Bonded Labour System

Manjit Singh observes that 84% of bonded labourers in Punjab are from backward castes, while 24% are from scheduled castes. Only a mere 2% of the labourers are from upper-castes. Several of these bonded labourers go back to their oppressors, despite having faced dire and violent working conditions before, because of the layers of marginalisation that await them at home.

“There was an answer to this puzzle with one of the respondents who was working with one employer for the last 10 years without wages. He was satisfied with the two square meals and some pocket money for bidis. He told that back home in Ranchi he cannot have even food just to live on. For the tribals the question was not of wages and working conditions but of struggle between survival and death”

Extensive Bonded Labour Networks Founded Upon Layers of Exclusion 

The bonded labour system is quick to take advantage of the structural deficiencies of the state. This is elaborated upon by Mahasveta Devi. After the bonded labour system was abolished in 1975, a lacuna was created due to inadequate efforts by state governments to rehabilitate ex-bonded labourers. This created a recruitment system managed by ex-bonded labourers who had been ostracized from their own communities due to their association with their upper-caste owners. This deeply-rooted bonded labour system is a direct result of state apathy towards the marginalised poor. 

“…The Bihar government realises Rs 30 crore from the forests of Chhotanagpur and Rs 10 crore from the excise department. The royalty received from the mines and industries must be fabulous. If forest revenue received by the government is Rs 30 crore what must the contractors be earning? The palaces at Ranchi and north Bihar give some idea. As long as Chhotanagpur is kept for exploitation alone, agents and sardars will go on haunting the destitute villages. Men and women will migrate to far away places. Some will come back, some will not, Punjab and Haryana will have slaves. West Bengal and the rest of Bihar bhatta-coolies. Kiln-owners, matans and truck drivers will have their pot of flesh and all will be happy except the tribals and the non-tribal poor. But they are expendable.”

Culture of Denial

After bonded labour was explicitly denounced in the 20-point program during the Emergency, SD Kulkarni notes some state governments, like that of Maharashtra, completely denied that any system of bonded labour existed in the state. 

“A new government has assumed office. To outdo the old 20-point Programme, the new government has declared a 40-point Programme in which there is no mention of any programme for bonded labourers. It appears that those who drafted this programme believed the earlier official stand that there was no bonded labour in the state. They had not heard of the Committee on Problems of Illicit moneylending and Bonded Labour nor of its Report submitted nearly eight months before the drafting of the programme.”

This policy of denial even continues today.

With reference to the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, Kiran Kamal Prasad states that, here again, the Bill’s purview is purposefully exclusive of bonded/forced labour and men, in general. With only one minor reference to bonded labour, the ambit of the Bill is drawn to focus predominantly on women and children caught in circles of sexual exploitation and sex work. The Bill works on the assumption that economic factors such as poverty, illiteracy and lack of livelihood opportunities cause trafficking. However, in assuming so, it turns a blind eye to the role social factors such as the caste system play in determining economic relations. This non-recognition of that which perpetuates the bonded/forced labour system leads it to create policy that negates the spirit of the Bonded Labour Slavery (Abolishing) Act, 1976 (BLSAA), thereby enabling further breeding of bonded and forced labour systems.

“…Although the bill does not abrogate BLSAA, its grandiose schemes and structures will negatively impact the use of the BLSAA. The “culture of denial” regarding bonded labour will get entrenched further, making the fight against bonded labour all the more difficult.”

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