Bonded labor: The ugly reality of modern India

Trigger warning: This story contains physical assault, harassment, and suicidal thoughts that readers may find disturbing.

“I was barely eight years old when I touched those silk threads for the first time, so it is ironic that I have never owned a silk sari in my life… they were always more expensive than I could afford,” says 32-year-old Chandramma, who was forced to quit school while studying second grade and work in a silk factory along with her sisters and parents. The sericulture industry in Karnataka’s Magadi district was on the rise when Chandramma’s parents migrated from a small village in Tumkur two decades ago in the hope for better opportunities.

Sericulture has a rich history of over 215 years in Karnataka, with over 10 lakh people currently employed in the industry—many of whom are bonded and child laborers. As G Ganga and J Sulochana Chetty write in their 1997 book An Introduction to Sericulture, “[S]ericulture is a labor-intensive industry… India, with its population explosion, has no labor problem. Sericulture does not require great skill but only delicacy in the handling of the worms and it is ideally suitable for the unskilled family labor, particularly womenfolk, aged, [disabled people] and children.”

Further, “Brick kilns, stone quarries, crushing mines, beedi manufacturing, carpet weaving, construction industries, agriculture, in the rural and urban unorganized and informal sectors, power looms and cotton handlooms, fish processing, etc.” are other industries where bonded labor is rampant, as noted by the Supreme Court in the October 2012 Public Union for Civil Liberties vs State of Tamil Nadu & Ors.

Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, harboring, transferring, or receiving of one or more people using threats, coercion, abduction, deception, fraud, abuse of power, or inducement, and exploiting them. It is defined in Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code and updated in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013. 

Most cases of bonded labor are also additionally cases of trafficking due to the use of threats, coercion, deception, and/or inducement in the form of cash advances in first initiating the relationship and then exploiting the workers by restricting their freedoms and paying meager wages. Trafficking is a non-bailable, cognizable offense. In some cases with multiple victims of trafficking, the sentence can be up to life in prison. According to the Ministry of Labour, more than 85 percent of bonded laborers are from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe (SC & ST) communities, and many of them are illiterate and live below the poverty line.

On paper, bonded labor was outlawed by the Indian government through the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLA) in 1976. And yet, a  total of 313,687 bonded laborers were identified across the country as of March 2019. 

Source: Lok Sabha Questions

As per information released by the Ministry of Labour & Employment (MoLE) in July 2018, Karnataka leads in the identification and rescue of bonded laborers. Karnataka has rescued 66,281 bonded laborers, the highest in the country, since 1976—when the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act was promulgated.

Chandramma, who was rescued as a child laborer in 1996 during a rescue campaign organized by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a few local NGOs, and the Karnataka government, found herself back in a sericulture unit as a bonded laborer as an adult when a series of tragedies struck her life. 

“After that raid on our silk unit by the government, I was put into a bridge school and a government hostel where I had the chance to study again and even attend a tailoring course,” reveals Chandramma, who was once again forced to let go of her dreams of education when she was married off at the age of 15. She had two children—one of whom she lost to a snake bite accident. Her husband left her, her mother succumbed to throat cancer, and her father battled alcoholism for a long period. Desperate for money, Chandramma and her sister Girijamma fell prey to an exploitative organ transplantation racket. They each donated one of their kidneys for Rs. 2 lakh each—they were sold in the market for Rs. 5 lakh each—which led to severe health troubles later. 

Chandramma, who was first trapped in bonded labor as a child, was forced into it again in her mid-twenties

In her mid-twenties, Chandramma returned to a sericulture unit in Chikkaballapur district along with Girijamma, where they were both offered an advance of Rs. 50,000 each. Although the work was familiar, they were appalled by the living conditions there. Chandramma and her son were locked up in a room for over six months, wherein they were only given food twice a day along with two liters of water for the entire day. 

“We were expected to use that water to drink, to bathe, and for hygiene purposes as well. It was not enough and very soon my son and I broke out in a severe allergic rash and infection due to the lack of sanitation. Our bodies were covered in boils and though we pleaded to be let out, our cries fell on deaf ears,” she says, adding, “Things got so desperate that I even contemplated ending my life.” 

Chandramma even tried to escape the facility twice, but was brought back and beaten up. Her sister Girijamma managed to escape and return with volunteers and police officers. In February 2019, Chandramma was rescued and was declared a “free woman.” She also received the initial rehabilitation cheque for Rs. 20,000 at the District Collector’s office two weeks later. Chandramma has no intention of returning to this industry for work. 

“Wherever there are sericulture units, this issue of bonded labor is prevalent,” says Ajith Kumar Rai, Tahsildar of Sidlaghatta—a town in Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur. Ajith led the rescue operation of 12 bonded laborers from two sericulture units in February 2019. Among the rescued were 26-year-old Mohan* who had been working as a bonded laborer for over 10 years to pay off a debt of Rs. 40,000 that his parents had taken. They used to work in the factory too until his father died and his mother was let go after she was diagnosed with cancer. 

Mohan got married to a fellow worker, who along with her brother had been working in the facility for seven years. In all their time in the factory, Mohan, his wife, and their children were never allowed to go out together. In fact, of the seven years she had lived there, his wife had only left the factory when she was taken to the nearby government hospital by the owner for delivering her children. They were physically assaulted by the owner and his wife if they asked for leave or fell sick.

The living conditions of bonded laborers are often deplorable. The image above is from a brick kiln in Yelahanka, Karantaka.

In a more recent rescue operation from July 2020, seven bonded laborers aged between 15 and 26, were rescued by government officials from a borewell digging unit in Belagavi district. According to The Hindu, all of them belonged to the Gond Scheduled Tribe from Chhattisgarh and were brought with the promises of good living conditions and wages ranging from Rs. 9,000 to Rs. 15,000 per month. Not only did these promises turn out to be false, but they were even forbidden from going home when coronavirus struck. They were also not given masks or other safety equipment while they continued to work during the lockdown period. 

The global pandemic, resulting in lockdown, and the ongoing health risks have made the already vulnerable communities further susceptible to exploitation and bonded labor, according to Outlook India. The writer, Niharika Chopra, Director, Policy, at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, explains how unorganized and migrant workers faced with “deprivation and hunger” would be forced into debt and predatory interest rates, which in turn would push them into an “inter-generational bondage and wageless labor.”  

The work of NGOs and various government departments is helping reduce the number of bonded laborers in the country—which was recorded as well over one crore in the 2012 book Bonded Labour: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia by Harvard University scholar Siddharth Kara. 

In July 2016, the Ministry of Labour & Employment (MoLE) of the Govt. of India announced in the Rajya Sabha that the government plans to release and rehabilitate an estimated 1.84 crore bonded laborers across the country by 2030 while also strengthening prosecution in these cases.

But, rescue doesn’t end with just releasing laborers from the place of bonded labor, but with ensuring their livelihood.

Rescue team with the laborers at a borewell unit in Bangalore.

Generally, after a laborer is rescued, the district administration conducts a detailed inquiry and determines all the facts of the case, after which they are issued a Release Certificate (RC). This cancels all their debts and obligations to the employer, giving them a legal identity as released bonded laborers, entitling them to a number of rehabilitative measures. Unfortunately, red tape contributes to many cases ending in the magistrate court and getting buried there, while the political clout of a lot of the traffickers and owners encourage them to act with impunity. 

As Karnataka Public Prosecutor and lawyer BT Venkatesh tells The News Minute, “NGOs don’t have the resources to see to the protection of the laborers; the police have no business protecting the accused because their job is to register the case. The state Welfare Department working on this has bureaucratic issues and they have no time to ensure safety. So, the bonded laborer remains a bonded laborer.” 

The end to bonded labor can only happen with a victim-centric approach that is backed by a well-functioning justice system, timely resolution of cases, and rehabilitation of survivors. More importantly, preventive measures such as social protection and access to credit and finance would help vulnerable communities stay protected from bonded labor. 

*The name was changed to protect the identity of the individual

By Mangala Dilip

Mangala is a writer and a former journalist who wants to use her words to influence changes, to amplify suppressed voices, to educate the uninformed, and to be part of a communist, feminist utopia in her lifetime.

First published on Sabudana Things blog:

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