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Supreme Court Statement on Bonded Labour Likely to Encourage it, Not Curb It

It is the need of the hour that the government implements the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976.

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What is bonded labour, if not the result of an asymmetrical social structure? It is a long-standing trend in society that forces mainly the economically poor to agree to do unpaid labour in lieu of their loans or borrowing.

Generations are forced into unpaid labour to pay for a meagre amount that was borrowed. This is how the baton of slavery is passed from one generation to the next. The poor labourer has no choice but to accept his situation as his destiny, and live like a slave in independent India.

Even after 75 years of independence, India has not been able to wash the stains of bonded labour. In fact, I believe that the menace is deepening in society. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Hemant Gupta made a rather disagreeable comment on bonded labour.

"Do you know who are bonded labourers? They are not bonded. They take the money and come there, and are engaged by brick kilns," Justice Gupta observed, while hearing a plea on behalf of a woman worker who was allegedly subjected to repeated rape by an associate of a brick kiln contractor in Jammu.

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"They come from backward areas. They take the money and eat the money, and then resign. This is a racket in the country. These labourers only take advantage of this bonded labourer thing," Justice Gupta added.

As the convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour, I strongly oppose this. This comment is an attack on the right to social justice of the bonded labourers, who are already standing at the end of the line and are the poorest of the poor in society.

A statement like this can encourage the continuation of this evil practice, instead of curbing it.

The 1976 Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act defines the ‘bonded labour system’ as a system of forced labour under which a debtor enters into an agreement with the creditor that he would render service to him either by himself or through any member of his family or any person dependent on him, for a specified or unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages, in consideration of a loan or any other economic consideration obtained by him or any of his ascendants, or in pursuance of any social obligation, or in pursuance of any obligation devolving on him by succession.

Lethargy and Pressure Makes Law Ineffective

The law empowers the district and sub-divisional magistrates to identify incidents of bonded labour and ensure the freedom and rehabilitation of these labourers through a vigilance committee.

The District Magistrate also has the power to hold a summary trial under the law but the lethargy of the government system and pressure from the government makes the law ineffective in terms of real implementation.

This is the main reason why the number of bonded labourers is increasing instead of decreasing in India.

I began work on the issue of bonded labour with the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) under the leadership of Swami Agnivesh in 2008. My work included working with bonded labourers in various states in varied sectors ranging from agriculture, construction, stone masonry, factories, restaurants, hotels, roadside eateries, mines, and even homes. We freed many, including women and children.

In 2012, we freed 51 agricultural labourers from the Janjgir-Champa district in Chhattisgarh. They were working at a brick kiln in Jammu, and after their rescue, they were sent back home with a certificate declaring them free from bonded labour. The incumbent Chief Minister Raman Singh met these laborers and assured them of rehabilitation and gave them financial aid of Rs 20,000 each.

To ensure their complete rehabilitation, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court which included many incidents of human trafficking and rape of bonded women labourers in 2012.

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Struggle for Rehabilitation

The National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour Network was formed in 2013 by like-minded organisations working in the field including Working People’s Coalition, Socio-Legal Information Centre (SLIC), BMM, and Labour Line.

Let me share some startling figures of the bonded labourers that were rescued – approximately 3,000 freed from the brick kilns of Jammu and Kashmir, 3,000 from Madhya Pradesh, 500 from Tamil Nadu, 500 from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, 1,000 from Rajasthan, 1,000 from Uttar Pradesh, 50 from Himachal Pradesh, 3,000 from Haryana, 2,000 from Punjab, 500 from Gujrat, and 1,500 from the Delhi-NCR region between 2012-2021.

In all, around 18,000 bonded labourers were freed from 2012-2021 through the campaign but the struggle for their rehabilitation continues till date. Only around 50 percent of these labourers have so far managed to get a certificate declaring them free from bonded labour, and only 25 percent of the certified labour under this law have received financial aid. The total rehabilitation of these labourers is below five percent.

A report by the Walk Free Foundation, Australia, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that there are “24 million slaves on the planet, of which 18.3 million are victims of forced labour.”

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Women and Children Forced into Bonded Labour

In all these years of working in the field, I have dealt with all kinds of cases.

There was a Dalit woman, who hailed from Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district, who was freed from bonded labour, along with 18 others, from a construction company in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida in October 2014. Those rescued also included children who were forced into bonded labour in lieu of food. The UP government issued certificates freeing them from bonded labour and the MP government rehabilitated them.

A Dalit migrant labourer, who used to work at a brick kiln in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam, along with 82 others was rescued a few years ago. The owner of the kiln was forcefully stopping them from going back to their home state of Chhattisgarh.

How do you think they would have perceived the latest statement by the SC? The victim had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 from his supervisor in May 2022. Even after making 90,000 bricks, the man and his family were not able to free themselves from the clutches of that loan re-payment.

Many women and girls are trafficked from West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, and other states to places like Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Punjab for doing daily household chores. Isn’t that bonded labour too?

Recently, the team of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour along with the SDM of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi freed a 22-year-old tribal woman who was sent back to her home in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh. The Delhi government provided her with both the certificate and immediate financial aid.

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During the Emergency in 1975, the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had included the agenda of bonded labour prevention and abolition in the 20-point program. On 25 October 1975, a notification was first issued in this regard which later took the shape of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976.

It was announced that cases of bonded labour will be dealt with an “iron hand.”

In 1978-79, the then government conducted a survey which found 2,86,000 bonded laborers, and they were freed after identification. The first survey was conducted by the Gandhi Shanti Pratishthan in collaboration with the VV Giri National Labour Institute.

For the physical and psychological rehabilitation of the freed bonded labourer, a scheme was launched in 1971 which had an equal budget share from the Centre and the state government. The aim was to aid the state governments in the rehabilitation work.

The scheme has seen many changes over the years. In May 2000, the financial aid for the rehabilitation of bonded labourer was increased from Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000. The scheme also has provisions for the survey of bonded labourers, an awareness campaign against the evil practice, and the creation of conditions to alleviate what leads to bonded labour in society. The government could provide financial aid for such activities and review the overall impact of efforts against bonded labour.

It is the need of the hour that the government immediately implements the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 and related court decisions. It must ensure that labour laws are strictly adhered to, and efforts should be made to regularise the labourers working in the unorganized sector, and to provide them social security, particularly to the unpaid women workers. It is only then that we can expect some positive changes in the world in which the poor labourer lives.

(Nirmal Gorana is the Convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour)

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