Jul 03, 2008
Contrary to government's claims, bonded labour in India is not merely confined to few pockets of the rural hinterlands but also continues unabated in towns and metropolises. Newer forms of the practice have emerged and are assimilated in the prevalent capitalist relations of production, according to a study.
You are lucky. In all probability, you are not a Kolta Woman from Garhwal. Had you been one, you would have been bought as a child bride, married to a man who had other wives as well, and after initial marital indoctrination, asked by your husband to work in a brothel in Delhi to pay back the bride price.
The stay at the brothel may last 20-25 years. Your husband in turn would be paying back loan-money to a moneylender, borrowed on account of the bride price and marriage expenses. This is still the state of affairs in India today, 60 years into a “vibrant democracy.”
A less startling example is the sumangali system prevalent in Tamil Nadu. Here the girl’s parents receive a small initial payment from a labour contractor with a commitment for a lump sum payment (Rs 40,000-50,000) at the expiry of the contract period, which is usually three years.
During the contract period, the girl works in a mill and receives a progressively increasing monthly wage ranging from Rs 400-800. Her parents collect the wage, but she is not allowed to meet them. She remains confined to the mill, slogging far beyond the legal 8-hour day or 48-hour week.
The lump sum money is to be used for her marriage (sumangali). In case the mill closes mid-way, the labour contractor walks out of the deal.
In both cases, unlike a normal worker, the girl has no say in choosing her exploiter. She has no freedom, no rights.
Shackles of slavery
You would call these bonded-labour relations, a vestige of the old semi-feudal order. And you may be correct in the economic and political sense, because that is not the general state of affairs in the country. Most material production and service relations today are not so dehumanised and oppressive.
But were you to investigate the spread and variety of bonded labour prevalent in the country today, you would still be horrified.
The Delhi-based Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), an organisation that works on labour-related issues, has just completed a national level study on bonded labour.
The incidence of bonded labour was studied in nine different states. The structure and effectiveness of the law and the attitude of government officials, is also looked into.
The outcome, a report tiled: Labour Vulnerability and Debt
Bondage in Contemporary India offers a good insight into the problem.
The study shows that despite government claims to the contrary, bonded labour is not limited to a few quarries or some landlord-vassal relations in the countryside.
Of course there still are Siris in Punjab-Haryana, Sagris in Rajasthan, Gotis in Bihar-Jharkhand-Orissa, Kamaiyas in Chhattisgarh, Jitas in Karnataka, debt-bonded Kols in Uttar Pradesh etc. but what is startling is the presence of bonded labour even in a metropolis like Delhi.
Zardozi is high fashion wear in the country and is exported in large quantities as well. In 2005, activist Junned Khan along with the Labour department, the local administration and the state police, was instrumental in rescuing 427 children from
zardozi karkhanas (factories) in the capital.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a Delhi-based organisation, runs a regular Mukti Ashram at Burari for children who have been released from bondage. Over the 25 years of its existence, the BBA claims to have helped 70,000 such
Clearly this or the sumangali system, are in no sense manifestations of old forms of bondage. In these and other cases documented by the study, bonded labour is observed in newer forms and in most unlikely places, assimilated into and serving the prevalent capitalist relations of production.
The study reinforces the fact that debt is the central and defining characteristic of almost all bonded labour relations. The creditor-debtor paradigm is embedded into the employer-employee relation in such a way that it leaves the worker strangled, with no choices, freedom or rights.
The lack of employment opportunities, the expanding contract system and consequent casualisation of work, under the liberalisation-globalisation campaign, helps reinforce these conditions in many occupations. These are the unpleasant truths about labour bondage in twenty-first century India.