Roots of servitude

Sagnik Dutta
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The Administration turns a blind eye to the practice of bonded labour that thrives in pockets of Punjab, resulting in suicides or brutal deaths

Vigilance required:Punjab is estimated to have about five lakh bonded labourers.Photo: Sandeep Saxena
Vigilance required:Punjab is estimated to have about five lakh bonded labourers.Photo: Sandeep Saxena

When Gurmail Singh had agreed to work as an agricultural labourer in return for a loan of Rs. 5,000 borrowed about five years ago, little did he know what he was getting into. A father of five living in a one-room house in Nainkallan village of Punjab’s Patiala district, Gurmail was forced to take a loan from one Karam Singh to meet his household expenses. Recounting the hard and unrewarding nature of his work, he says: “I had to be available for work 24 hours. I was working on the fields of my employer — spraying chemicals and fertilisers. I remember getting up as early as three or four in the morning at times when my employer demanded and working till 11-12 at night.”

The worst was yet to come though. When Gurmail wanted to leave the job about four months back, his employer said that he had accumulated dues of Rs 1.5 lakh. When Gurmail refused to pay the said amount, Karam Singh and his associates badly beat him up and he had to be hospitalised. A complaint to the police did not yield any result also. It was with the intervention of Jai Singh, an activist with the Dalit Movement Against Servitude, that a formal complaint could be registered four months back.

However, the employer denied that Gurmail was ever working for him. After being rescued from a state of bondage, Gurmail now drives a rickshaw in Patiala. Karam Singh has, meanwhile, filed two cases against him for the recovery of Rs. 80,000 and Rs. 90,000 respectively. The police have been allegedly harassing his pregnant wife in their native village for the recovery of this amount.

For Jasbir Kaur’s 35-year-old husband Avatar Singh, the desire to be freed from bonded labour only led to his brutal and untimely death. A resident of Ghanduan village in Sangrur district, Avatar had taken a loan of Rs. 45,000 from his employer Baru Singh four years back. He was engaged in doing odd jobs on the field, including cleaning and spreading cow dung. When he asked his employer to be freed a month back, the employer alleged that he had dues worth Rs. 90,000 pending. Avatar went missing during the paddy harvesting season after an altercation with the employer and the family was told that he had committed suicide for not being able to pay his dues. Avatar’s wife Jasbir, however, refuses to buy this. She feels that there was some foul play involved. Jasbir also alleges that the local gurudwara had put pressure on Avatar to pay off his debts. Following her husband’s death and the hostility of institutions such as the panchayat and the Gurudwara, Jasbir now stares at an uncertain future.

The stories of Jasbir and Gurmail are not isolated incidents; bonded labour is a thriving practice in Punjab. Jai Singh told The Hindu : “Even in the so-called green belt of Punjab which leads the country in terms of agricultural produce, the problem of bonded labour is a very real one. There are about five lakh bonded labourers in Punjab. The implementation of MGNREGA was expected to check this practice. However, the implementation is caught in a bind because of the differences between the State government and the Centre. The rehabilitation of bonded labourers becomes difficult as the district officials often refuse to issue release certificates.”

K. Gopal Iyer, a retired professor of Sociology in Punjab University, highlighted the reasons for the large-scale prevalence of this practice across Punjab: “In Punjab and Haryana, the dominant castes, the Jats, exercise enormous control over political, social and economic structure, perhaps a lot more than in other States. The reluctance of the district administration to issue release certificates stems from a policy of denial of this existing practice. Another important phenomenon which has gone unnoticed is the high degree of bondage-related suicides in the districts of Sangrur, Bhatinda and Mansa. About 45 per cent of the total number of suicides of agricultural labourers is related to bondage.”

A national level advocacy campaign was recently launched in Delhi recently by a host of organisations — Action Aid India, Adivasi Solidarity Council, International Justice Mission and Justice Ventures International — with the aim of mobilising people across the country to unite against bonded labour. Speaking at the event, Saju Mathew, director of operations, International Justice Mission, said, “There is a need for active vigilance committees at the district level to stop this practice. Industries are not regulated very well; so on the face of it, bonded labour is masked as a legitimate job.”

Bonded labour is prohibited in India by Article 23 of the Constitution. Further, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 provided the complete abolition of the practice to prevent the exploitation of marginalised sections of people. Despite the enactment of the law, the practice continues to this day. As per the estimates of Human Rights Watch, there are about four crore bonded labourers in India at present. The International Labour Organisation estimates that about 56 per cent of the bonded labourers of the world are in India. 

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