We could together abolish human slavery

In this column, I would like to reflect with the readers on addressing a few causative factors that lead to communities and families remaining in bonded labour sometimes for generations and illustrate a few factors that lead to it and highlight possible directions on how we can work together to end the system of bonded labour, which has been abolished in the country by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976.

Slavery is not a thing of the past – it exists today in various forms, forcing people to work in pathetic conditions and exploited by unscrupulous employers.  Here are some issues:

Trapped in slavery:  Many people who work as bonded labourers do not even realise, they are bonded, often attributing their current status to continuing what their forefathers did to earn their livelihood and they are also meant to do that because they belong to a certain community. They are happy with the dole-outs of food or weekly cash given by their employers.  Some even believe that their owners care for them, given that they are provided with transport, shelter, water and food.  In this, process, they pay little attention to analysing if the wages they receive are substantial to their work performance and are not aware of the rights they have.  Given their illiteracy, they are unable to calculate what is due to them.  

Unable to repay loans:  It is often the case that because families are unable to repay their loans, they are forced to work as bonded labourers. When faced with financial difficulties during festivals and marriages, they borrow from owners who leave them no choice but to mortgage their assets such as jewellery, land and house.  Thereafter, unable to pay the loan with high interest that is not properly calculated, they lose all their assets. Thus, many lose their agriculture lands and houses that they would have traditionally inherited. In the present context of the deadly Corona virus pandemic, with no work at their brick kilns or other employment, it is possible that some of them are selling their only remaining assets- cows and other livestock, in order to get cash to buy food.

Focus on symptoms rather than liberation:  Though most NGOs do good work, they tend to focus on symptoms of the problems faced by the rural communities – such as poor health and hygiene, lack of education and access to essentials such as water, toilets, electricity, etc.  They do succeed in enabling their children to go to school, ensure they are immunised and have access to solar power.  I believe that the focus should be on liberation alongside providing for their needs. 

A vicious cycle:  Many a time, once a family is liberated from bonded labour in one district, they go into another district and gets pulled into the bonded labour cycle all over again.   Brick making being their only skill set on which their livelihood depends, they tend to find such jobs easily.  Failure to get immediate compensation through the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and their inability to obtain an alternate source of livelihood leads to them invariably returning to the same situation.  Nevertheless, there are success stories of NGOs providing initial support/capital to the released families to work together on making bricks as a cooperative. One such person who had become a successful businessman is now practicing Community Maturity Tools (CMT) for measuring the maturity or the growth of the community towards self-sustainability in liberating other communities from bonded labour and is also a member of District bonded labour vigilance committee (DBLVC) in UP.

Integrated solution is the need of the hour: 

We need to approach the issue in all its dimensions.  Any poverty alleviation programming needs a social policy perspective as there is always a policy linkage to every social problem. Both the symptoms and the root causes need to be simultaneously addressed.  Many a time, a problem exists because there is no Government Policy or even if one exists, it is either defunct or malfunctioning.  In the case of bonded labour, the root causes are intertwined with the social structure of oppression, caste and denial of rights.

This calls for Social Policy framework:

  1. Reform: The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSA) of 1976 is certainly in place.  Yet, there is a need to review if laws are working adequately and to suggest revision. Currently though BLSA exists, hardly a dozen arrests of owners have been made since the Act came into force in the last several decades.  Further though it is mandated under BLSA to undertake Bonded Labour survey in every District, Karnataka was the first and only State to really undertake this in one District, while in the rest of India, there is a hesitation to even accept that Bonded Labour exists in their District/State. DBLVC do exist in most Districts, only on paper.  Continuous Reform therefore is crucial to influence long term structural changes in the society.  If that is done, it could be a deterrent, thus preventing others from practicing bonded labour.
  2. Welfare: Immediate needs of health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation if met could save lives.  NGOs should therefore engage in activities such as providing nutritious food to children, shelter to internally displaced families and enabling children to complete schooling. Community could access Government schemes as well.
  3. Development:  Activities should relate to sustainable development goals (SDGs).  These include livelihood, food security, economic and political empowerment.   Livelihood is key to sustainable development. If families can get a regular income, they would access and pay for education and attend to health needs of their children and families. If economically empowered, they would be able to participate in the political process of the local ‘Panchayat’ and become politically empowered. Awareness building is vital for liberating the bonded labourer. The families that are currently bonded would listen to liberated communities that were similarly bonded at one time.

That said, NGO programming should be based on socio political analysis of the root causes of the problem, power structure in the village and stake holder analysis.  The programme should be designed keeping in mind the welfare (immediate needs), development (short term but sustainable) and reform (long term structural changes) activities in a balanced way – all of them in dialogue with the community.  This could abolish bonded labour during our lifetime.  

Further, like the way the ‘Swatch Bharat’ Mission was successfully implemented by the Central Government, to put an end to the crime of bonded labour, the issue requires the support of political leadership, public financing, partnerships and people’s participation to ensure that this slavery or any form of it  is eradicated from our social structure.  

By Dr. James Arputharaj Williams

Dr. James Arputharaj Williams is currently a Development Consultant based in Bangalore. He had served several INGOs as Country Head for over 18 years including Aide et Action and Kinder not hilfe in India; and overseas with Save the Children, Oxfam, CORDAID and Lutheran World Relief.  After return to India, has worked with Free the Slaves as South Asia Regional Manager. He holds a doctorate in Social Policy from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and was on the Faculty of Madras Christian College earlier.  He was a NGO speaker at the UN HQ for the Conference on Small Arms in 2001.   A Policy analyst, he was a part of some international  campaigns and has written several articles, has 6 Books to his credit.


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