A recent book details how bonded labour has always been a part of our social structure and how we are unable to root it out even today

Behru, a hali or traditional debt-bonded labourer in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, worked hard as an attached agricultural labourer, day in and day out, in the cattle shed, household, and farm of his master. ‘He tended to the cattle, fed them, milked the cows and also attended to many odd jobs like ploughing the field, sowing, harvesting, carting, threshing, stacking the crops in the barn, and transporting them to the Ratlam market. He worked for 16 hours daily, had no overtime and spread over, no holiday and was heavily fined for each day of his absence, which was debited to his wage account. Even when he fell sick, he was dragged out of his hovel to attend to the master. If ever the master gave him some medicine, the cost was debited to his account. This is how his indebtedness increased. The master did not give Behru any food but allowed Behru to arrange to bring the food from his home. The food comprised two makki rotis without any vegetable or dal but only some salt. The earthly possessions of Behru were of an earthen hut with a mud floor, one set of dhoti and turban, a cotton sari for his wife and one set of garments for the children, a tin mug and bucket, a torn mattress, a mat, an earthen pot to store corn and two earthen cooking pots'.

Still thriving

The illumination of freedom and democracy, the robust safeguards of the Constitution, strict prohibitions of the law, an activist judiciary and committed human rights movement, international covenants, and the transformations of capitalist economic growth, all have been powerless to end bonded work, the hidden slavery of millions of such indigent workers in the Indian republic.

Lakshmidhar Mishra, a retired civil servant currently working with the National Human Rights Commission, has compiled many stories like Behru's in a monumental treatise Human Bondage: Tracing its Roots in India (Sage, 2011). Combining humanist sensitivity with the diligence of a committed public servant, and a careful reading of the law, his book is an encyclopaedic record of labour unfreedoms, past and present. In his learned manuscript, lit with rare compassion, and grounded in sound practical knowledge of the working of government, Mishra takes us on a harrowing journey of helpless and hopeless pauperisation, and profound failures of the State to protect its most vulnerable people.

Mishra traces ancient roots to contemporary forms of bonded labour in India. Slavery in ancient India was an integral and an essential feature of the inequitable social structure. Kautilya in Arthasastra recognises debt bondage of dasas, or slaves reduced to slavery for food; and other forms of slavery as well: dasas as gift, property, mortgage and by judicial decree. A dasa cannot be released from his dasa status except at the master's will, in cases where servitude is inter-generational. Manu added a new category of dasas, under which parents take a loan, or advance, and barter away the services of their children to the creditor for bonded work. Manu links this to caste, maintaining slavery is the eternal destiny of the shudras who have been created by God with the sole purpose to serve the Brahmins. Members of the dwijas (twice-born castes such as Brahmins) could not be reduced to the status of slaves. A shudra should not be released from servitude as this is preordained for him.

The master had absolute control over a person. A dasa does not have the option or discretion of selling his labour in return for some remuneration (as he enters into servitude in return for the certainty of food for his biological survival). The status of women slaves, in ancient India in general and in the Vedic society in particular, was far more deplorable than that of their male counterparts. They also outnumbered male slaves. Women slaves were acquired by gift, abduction, and guru dakshina.

In this way, the author records that slavery in ancient India was an integral and an essential feature of the inequitable social structure. He finds that medieval India, from the 13th century onwards, did not mark any major departure from the inequitable economic and social relationship which was obtained in ancient India. As a matter of fact, the period saw the emergence of domestic slavery and its growth to unimaginable heights. The silver lining was that the liberal and egalitarian principles of Islam opened up some avenues for the emancipation of slaves. The gamut of economic changes during the colonial era was characterised by new land settlements, de-industrialisation, de-skilling of rural artisans and commercialisation. The three phenomena together led to the development of a very large section of agricultural proletariat, who often worked in conditions of bondage.

In independent India, Mishra records many moving case histories of bonded workers. He also reports the paradox of 500,000 labourers are trapped in various forms of bonded labour in Punjab; the onset of the Green Revolution since the 1960s, mechanisation of farming and influx of migrant labour (mostly from eastern India) has created much surplus labour. Many of them are prepared to work at less than half the minimum wage rate. Many labourers fall ill due to contact with pesticides and insecticides. This results in higher medical expenses and consequently debt. I too have observed such bondage widely in Punjab, but the administration refuses to acknowledge the existence of bonded labour system.

Mishra unravels the riddle of the perpetuation of unfree labour in free India, with a detailed and learned review of the cycles of unemployment, under-employment, income security, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, denial of minimum wages, distress migration, caste discrimination, illiteracy, the land tenure system, credit failures and indebtedness, aggravated by globalisation.

Hardest hit

He finds the harshest forms of bonded labour among children, who are mortgaged by impoverished parents against a loan, sometimes separated from their parents for life. He passionately opposes arguments that child labour will never be eliminated until poverty of parents has been fully eradicated. ‘The people who argue thus do not realise that child labour itself is a major contributory factor to poverty. The vitality of children at work is sapped and they remain unlettered, unskilled, and unaware of their right to education and other rights as children. With bodies and minds so grievously bruised, these children cannot become productive, responsible, and responsive adults'.

With the insider detail of a conscientious practitioner, Mishra painstakingly analyses why a host of progressive legislation, prohibiting forced, bonded and child labour, upholding minimum wages and protecting inter-state migration, have failed. This is despite supportive rulings by judges like P.N. Bhagawati who gave a broad, liberal, expansive meaning to the provisions of law protecting the freedom and dignity of workers.

It is only his suggested solutions at the close of the book which I found a little less convincing, in an otherwise magisterial treatise. Mishra believes with Justice Bhagawati in the primacy of law to enforce social justice for these ‘exiles from civilisation'. He calls for amelioration, bringing about a qualitative improvement and change in the lives of the bonded labourers after they have been released from the shackles and fetters of bondage. The bonded labourers are the poorest of the poor and weakest of the weak. They should be the first beneficiaries in any poverty alleviation or employment promotion scheme. He seeks prevention, by massive programmes for education, micro-credit, land reforms, and training of executive magistrates charged with implementing the law. These suggestions are unexceptionable, but insufficient for a scourge which has survived for centuries in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

I desperately hope, like the author, that this practice of monumental injustice so deeply embedded in our troubled civilisational legacies, will end in our lifetimes. But I still cannot see how.

Keywords: bonded labour

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Sunday Magazine Mail BagOctober 29, 2011