The sun is about to set over grey-brown slabs in sandstone quarries in Kota district, Rajasthan. Babulal Khairwa sits at the edge of a quarry and attentively hits a taanki, a chisel shaped like a gigantic nail, placed on the stone with a hammer. Babulal hits the stone with the hammer till it cracks in a straight line. Each 2 by 10 square feet foot slab, or farsi, will fetch Rs. 1600 in the market. But it will not earn the 38-year-old worker any wages.

“I borrowed Rs. 10000 from Bahadur Bapu quarry’s owner five years back. He says my debt has doubled now. He gives me Rs. 500 kharchi every month for my family’s expenses. At the end of the year he adjusts this against my previous loan,” he says. If the rock does not break in a straight line, he has to start all over again. His wife Heera Bai and three daughters help him carry the stone. “The debt increases every year; I do not get a rupee in my hand. If I run back to my village, the quarry owners will come in a jeep or motorbike to take me back,” he says.

Sandstone quarries stretch for over 100 kms near Rajpura and Dhabi on the outskirts of Kota city in south Rajasthan. Most sandstone is used in construction in Rajasthan and Haryana. Since the last few years it is being exported to Saudi Arabia too. “Depending on the size of the quarry, the annual profit can be upto Rs. 5 crores,” says Fateh Singh who has come from Kota to buy sandstone. “The sandstone here is of such quality that the slab must be cut manually, machines cannot be used to do this,” says Om Prakash Agarwal, a buyer from north Rajasthan.

There are five other workers in the quarry with Babulal Khairwa’s family. The largest quarry owned by Newaji Gujjar employs over 400 workers. Most workers are in a similar cycle of bonded debt and no regular wages. “I came here with my family nine years back after taking Rs. 20000 as advance. At the end of the year, Jetka Sahab, the quarry owner, said I owed Rs. 24000. He gives us Rs. 400-500 as kharchi every two three weeks,” said Mangal Rama, a worker from Jhabhua in Madhya Pradesh.

Pinjana, a deserted village

At Babulal Khairwa’s village in Kishanganj block in Baran, 150 kms away, the village is deserted. A majority of the 500-odd households are landless and leave for the quarries in Kota after Diwali to return only in May.

The village elders say the community got its name from the Khair tree. “We would slice the wood, take the extract, let it ferment and then sell it as katha,” explained Ganesh Ram Khairwa.

The State government had formed cooperatives for Khairwas to do this work but in the last two decades as the forest deteriorated, the cooperatives were winded up. “Now everyone goes to the quarries. My only son worked there for 20 years and died last sankrant (in January) with a debt of Rs. 25000. I told the quarry owner I am too old to work in his place,” he says. “Both my sons worked in the quarries. Devraj, my younger son was 18 when he went. The quarry owner brought him back in a jeep; Devraj was in the back and was vomiting blood. I rushed him to the hospital in Baran but he died,” said Jashoda Bai.

The villagers say it would pay better to work in construction in Baran or Kota but that those who have worked in the quarry once must keep going there because of the debt. “My son Man Singh worked in the quarry for many years. He lost two fingers while trying to cut the stone. He had a debt of Rs. 40000. He came back to the village and the quarry owner came after him. I pleaded that he has lost two fingers, how will he work now, then they let him go,” says Gore Lal.

Government’s apathy

India was the first in South Asia to abolish bonded labour with the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) (BLA) Act 1976. Ironically, it was during the Emergency imposed from 1975 to 1977 that a few bureaucrats managed to push for the law as part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘20-point economic program’ to end bonded debt among agricultural workers.

The first-ever survey of bonded labour by the Gandhi Peace Foundation in 1978 recorded 26 lakhs bonded labourers in 10 States, one-fourth of whom were adivasis and over 60 per cent Dalits. In the same year, the 32nd round of National Sample Survey Organisation put the official count at significantly less 3.43 lakh bonded workers in 16 States.

There has been no nation-wide survey since then. In reports submitted by States to NHRC in 2012, accessed by The Hindu, 18 States including Rajasthan stated ‘nil’ in results of bonded labour surveys.

“Bonded debt will go only when workers are provided income security, food security and with collective action. For instance, Kol tribals in bonded debt in quarries in Allahabad won collective mining rights following a long-drawn struggle,” said economist Ravi Srivastava, member of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector set up by UPA in 2004. “Right now most workers find it hard to calculate their minimum wage because there is no statutory national minimum wage floor. We strongly recommended this and creating social security, skills and training programme for all workers,” he said. The Labour Ministry’s proposal to set Rs. 115 a day as the statutory national minimum wage for workers across sectors is pending since 2009.

At Pinjana, villagers say their cycle of debt gets over only when a worker dies. “If someone dies and there is no one remaining in the family who can work in for him, then the debt dies,” says Gore Lal.

What Supreme Court said on Bonded Labour

  • 1994: Ordered States to identify bonded labour and employers, monitor contractors, send quarterly reports to SC Legal Aid Committee
  • 1997: Appointed National Human Rights Commission to monitor BLA implementation.
  • 2001: Expert Group set up by NHRC under S. A. Sankaran submitted its report criticising State governments.
  • 2004: Ordered States to submit bi-annual reports to NHRC, set up vigilance committees, rehabilitate workers through land based, skills/craft based schemes as per workers’ choice.
  • 2010: Asked states to specify how they had used Rs 4.94 crores provided by Ministry of Labour for BLA surveys from 2001-10.
  • 2012: Ordered fresh surveys in States every three years, findings to be part of a computerised database on government websites.