It is an illegal but accepted practice here to employ agricultural labourers and their family against a loan
The blaring gurdwara loudspeakers at Punjab’s Gandav village confirmed the worst fears of Jasbir Kaur. They were announcing that the recently-widowed young woman would lose the one-room shed she calls home if she was unable to pay back the Rs. 80,000 her husband had borrowed from the village landowner. With the home would go the hope for a life of dignity for her nine-year-old son Gurpreet.
Jasbir’s husband, Avtar Singh, had “sold” himself and his wife as bonded labourers against a loan of Rs. 45,000 four years ago, to the village landlord. He died this August leaving behind the unpaid debt.
“The fact that they [Jasbir Kaur and her husband] had worked for virtually no money and stale food at the landlord’s farms day and night did not help; the debt only accumulated interest,” says social activist Jai Singh who has been working in the area for the rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labourers in Punjab for several decades now.
Sitting alongside Mr. Jai Singh, her son huddled against her, Ms. Kaur tells her story.
“Avtar Singh was often beaten up so brutally at work that he wouldn’t be able to stand up the next day. Then one day the landlord came and told me that my husband had committed suicide while at work. I got so frightened that they would now come after my son — as is a common practice in Punjab to replace an injured, dead worker with another male member from his family — that I decided to run away from the farm with my son. But last week my landlord found me and asked me to return his money with interest.”
Ms. Kaur says that she has now been ex-communicated from the village until she pays the landlord who has also “threatened to take away her utensils and broken cot — the only assets we owns”.
Mr. Jasbir Singh says Ms. Kaur is in fact lucky that her son hasn’t already been taken away. “It is an illegal but accepted practice in Punjab to employ labourers against a loan. These bonded labourers are paid almost no, or very little, salary and kept poor enough to be never able to pay back the landowner,” says Mr. Singh. “Despite laws and strict punishment, bonded labour continues to be widely followed across Punjab’s agricultural sector.”
He estimates that the State currently has five lakh bonded workers — men, women and children — struggling in abject poverty with no access to basic health care, education or social security.
In India, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh continues to have the largest population of bonded labour according to report released by the National Human Rights Commission last year.
Says Manoj Verghese of International Justice Mission which along with Adivasi Solidarity Council and others will be soon launching a national advocacy campaign against bonded labour: “Lack of awareness and education among the bonded labours ensures that the schemes aimed specifically at their rescue and rehabilitation is not yielding results. Most still prefer to stay on in the farmlands with the assurance of at least one meal a day. Sadly even death isn’t able to rescue the families out of the vicious cycle with their children often being pushed into this vicious cycle to repay their father’s debt.”