In bonded servitude

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The system of bonded labour, though outlawed, persists deep behind feudal bonds of custom and economic dependence. The plight of 13 tribal communities in Orissa is a case in point.

GOPINATH Dura, bonded slave for more than 40 years to one master, does not want to be free. Indeed, he is terrified by the thought of liberty. His master gives him food, and a new dhoti twice a year, on the festivals of Chaith and Dasara. "If I am freed", Gopinath asks, "where will I go? I have nobody in the world."

In a clearing between paddy fields below low green rolling hills, Gopinath squats on a reed mat with us in the shade of a mahua tree. He was born in Podaghata village in Malkangiri district of southern Orissa.

Malkangiri, carved out of undivided Koraput district, a remote backwater riven by hunger, debt bondage and sporadic naxalite bloodletting, which easily spills over from the neighbouring regions in Andhra Pradesh that have been in ferment for decades. Its dense forests provide effective camouflage and cover to dalams or squads of smouldering naxalite subversives, who occasionally bomb police stations and vehicles, their violent but egalitarian ideology finding fertile soil in the savagely exploited tribal communities which constitute almost 60 per cent of the population of the district.

Gopinath's words are slow and halting, as he reconstructs for us the sparse and humble details of his life. He was barely five years old when he was given away in bondage to a rich landed moneylender, a settler from Andhra Pradesh, Ramchandra Kelap. His father had taken from Kelap a loan of two bullocks to cultivate his two acres of dry land. In return, he gave away his son as a bonded slave. Forty years later, Gopinath remains yoked to Ramachandra Kelap's son.

Gopinath's memories of his family are blurred and painful, like flashes of a dimly recalled bad dream. He remembers only that his parents would always quarrel. One day he learnt that both had, in a moment of crazed frenzy, swallowed poison, and died. His younger brother still cultivates the small tract of land that they owned and from time to time takes further loans from Kelap against Gopinath's unending and unresisting servitude. For Gopinath, the only legacy of his barely remembered parents is of a lifetime of bondage.

Gopinath, for as long as he can remember, stretches out to sleep at night at the corner of the courtyard of his master's spreading mansion. He works on his fields, tends his cattle, and attends all day to domestic chores in his home. He is paid three bags of paddy every year after each harvest. However, since he eats all his meals from his master's kitchen, the master takes back from him all this paddy into his own store each year.

Apart from two sets of clothes annually, Gopinath sometimes is given two or three rupees as a treat. He spends this to buy bidis, his only occasional indulgence.

It is not that Gopinath has no dreams. It is just that he is so unaccustomed to clothing his dreams in spoken words that he stumbles and falters as he tries to reconstruct and share his story with us. He still hopes that one day he will be married, and own a home and a small patch of land. His master has long promised him that he will give him land, find a bride for him and get him married. Gopinath trusts that some day his master will redeem his promises to him. He bears him no rancour. "It was my father who gave me away to the master," he reasons. "It was my father who asked him not to send me back home."

GOPINATH is not alone in his situation of bonded servitude. For thousands among the 13 tribal communities that inhabit the wooded terrain of the remote district of Malkangiri, bondage is literally their only lifeline to survival. Their lands are almost entirely mortgaged or expropriated by moneylenders, and the denuded forests, guarded by a Forest Department which is still colonial in its ethos, are unable to sustain them any longer.

Therefore, they have absolutely no savings, no reserves, and a single failed crop, or a health emergency, or an arrest by the police, or even a death feast or bride price for marriage, is enough to push them to the edge of the precipice. A cash loan of sometimes no more than a few hundred or a thousand rupees, or a bag of seeds, or a pair of bullocks, or some sacks of paddy: these are all that it takes to secure a bonded slave for years, sometimes even generations. The bonded worker agrees to work for little or no wages, often nothing more than food and clothes. The wages for their work under bondage are usually credited against only the interest for the loan, and bondage continues often for many long years, sometimes even beyond a lifetime, until the principal is finally deemed to be repaid.

The bonded workers, frequently non-literate and always powerless, have no choice but to depend exclusively on the word of the employer about when the loans are finally paid off. Meanwhile, crises continue to haunt their precarious families, and recurring small loans further perpetuate their servitude. Bondage is often hereditary, and it is not unusual for children to carry the heritage of their parent's subjugation even after their deaths.

Bondage is outlawed in India, and in theory an employer of bonded workers can be sent to jail for up to three years. However, despite stray and sporadic spurts of activism, which have become even more rare in recent years, it is extremely rare for any employer to ever be charged, let alone prosecuted. Most State governments deny the persistence of the practice of bondage, although it thrives especially in tribal tracts, brick kilns, mines and construction sites across the country. Even activists and academics debate whether bondage should be fought head-on, if the state is unable to organise less exploitative credit for an impoverished family threatened by hunger, disease or famine.

In Malkangiri, a group of more than 20 NGOs (non-governmental organisations) joined hands with a sympathetic district administration and a development organisation ActionAid India from 2001, to survey afresh the prevalence of bondage in the district.

Bondage is hidden deep behind feudal bonds of custom and economic dependence. Therefore it is often difficult to locate, and even harder to prove. Despite this, they have together found evidence of bondage in every corner of the district.

In their survey, they found that "some bonded labourers receive no wages at all, apart from food and a yearly change of clothing; some receive extremely low wages, constituting as little as 10 per cent of the mandated minimum wage; some receive a standard wage in theory, but in fact lose 70 or 80 per cent of it to the employer as interest on the advance. Some labourers are working to pay off a 500-rupee loan, others a 15,000-rupee loan. Some inherited their debt from their parents; others have contracted for a ten-month period of servitude. Some work 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, every year of their lives. Others work ten hours a day, six days a week. Despite differences, all are bonded labourers within the definition of the law". Tradition sanctifies "a system which allows the master to hold the person in bondage for an indefinite period, extending sometimes to generations, until the total repayments are made. During this period, the person in bondage has absolutely no freedom of choice, and cannot seek employment elsewhere. The worker is paid a pittance in return for the unlimited services with no specific nature of work or working hours". Until the time of writing, 707 bonded workers were identified by the alliance.

Among them is Gopinath Dura. He is too frightened to be free.

However, there are many among the bonded workers who long for their deliverance. Hatiram Patti of Butiguda village, bonded for three years says: "It is better to sleep hungry than to live in bondage. Being in bondage is a torture which I cannot explain in words."

Hatiram of the Bhumiya tribe owns less than one acre of land. Over generations his family sold pieces of their agricultural land as the only way to survive the unremitting onslaught of emergencies. But now there is virtually no land left. Therefore, when his brothers fell mortally sick one by one, each with a racking tubercular cough which just would not leave them, he had no choice except to pledge himself to a neighbour for two loans of Rs. 500 each. The loans barely met the fees that he paid to the desari or traditional healer. However, the desari's medicines kept them in health for barely two days at a time, and then they lapsed deeper into their affliction. Eventually, both brothers died, and more loans had to be incurred for the ritual feasts to which he invited members of his clan from the surrounding countryside, in accordance with the traditions of his tribe.

When his guests returned home, custom further decreed that he gave each a basket containing some rice, salt, onion, potatoes and lentils. His debts continued to mount. But Hatiram is determined that he will never return to bondage, even though he has now accepted responsibility to tend also his brothers' children with his already meagre and strained household resources.

Rama Bisinayak of village Podaghata is not so sure. Barely 17 years old, he was given away in bondage four years earlier by his father, for two bags of paddy seeds worth little more than Rs.200. Their crop had failed the year before, and there was no seed to cultivate their two acres of dry upland paddy fields.

Even in a good year, there is no food-grain left in their small earthen stores at their home after the summer festival of Chaith, and every member of the family learns to sleep several nights a month on an empty stomach, and this deprivation continues unremittingly until the next harvest. They survive by migrating to distant places, for work in brick kilns or as construction workers. However, if the crops fail, hunger stalks their homes much earlier.

Rama works for his master from dawn often late into the night. He is paid one meal a day, and a caudi (approximately 30 kg) of paddy a month. The activists of his village negotiated with the master by repaying his loan and securing his release. He is at present engaged in wage labour at a government road construction site close to his village. But once again this year the rains have failed, and the crops are scorched and wilted.

One more time, Rama Bisinayak's family will need a loan for the seeds to sow their fields next year. "But what if you will not be able to repay the loan?" we asked Rama. He replied quietly "Then I shall have no choice but to go back to bondage."

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