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Slavery amidst prosperity

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001

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The rescue of a farm worker from bondage in Haryana highlights the significant presence of exploitation in the States that benefited substantially from the Green Revolution.

WHEN the provisional results of Census 2001 were released a couple of months ago, demographers, sociologists and other concerned sections of society were shocked to find that the child sex ratio (for children aged up to six years) had plummeted sharply in the States that had benefited from the Green Revolution. It was apparent that the BIMARU States (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), known for their backwardness, no longer held the monopoly for such gender-related discrepancies; the prosperous States too witnessed acute gender-based discrimination.

In the case of the relatively prosperous States of Punjab and Haryana, there has been yet another shocking revelation - that bonded labour is prevalent in the districts close to their border. Incidentally, in these two States the per capita income is much higher than in the rest of the country.

The recent rescue of 37-year-old Bacchan Singh, a Dalit farm worker, by activists of the All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) is a stark reminder of the atrocities perpetrated on Dalits in Punjab and Haryana. Even more shocking was the attitude of the administration of Fatehabad district in Haryana, which not only refused first to believe the AIAWU members but delayed the rescue process. Cases were filed only after the release of the hapless Dalit. Bacchan Singh, who worked on the fields of Sukhdev Singh and his brothers, does not even realise that he was kept as a bonded labourer by Sukhdev Singh.

Bacchan and his wife Rani Kaur have worked on Sukhdev Singh's farm in Lamba village of Ratia tehsil for nearly 20 years. Fatehabad district has large landholdings and is close to Punjab. Bacchan's father Jaib Singh also worked in the same farm earlier. Sukhdev Singh had brought him from Amritsar. Jaib Singh had apparently borrowed some money from Sukhdev Singh and his brothers. After Jaib Singh's death, Bacchan, who had been working there since childhood, continued to be in the employ of Sukhdev Singh. He worked regularly, but was not paid wages on a regular basis; "some money" would be given when he wanted to buy rations or medicines, it was stated. Ploughing the field,often with a tractor, and doing all kinds of odd jobs for the landlord were part of Bacchan's routine. Sukhdev Singh, his brother and their two sons owned 150 acres (60 hectares) of land, three tractors and four tubewells.

Bacchan's day started before daybreak and ended after sunset. He found no time for his three children, aged between two and a half years and eight years. Rani did household work for the landowners and also gathered cowdung. Her work-day lasted 10 to 15 hours - for Rs.100 a month. The couple were not allowed to leave the farm without the permission of the landlords. The masters allegedly beat them regularly "to keep them in place".

The treatment meted out to Bacchan Singh and his family became particularly cruel recently. Bacchan Singh kept away from work on June 30 to attend the wedding of his niece. On July 3, when he returned to the farm, Sukhdev Singh, his brother and their two sons allegedly brutally beat him up. It has been stated that he was hit on the head and legs and then chained, even made to work with his left hand chained to the left leg. At night his hands were also tied. He was allegedly kept in this condition until he was rescued on July 9.

During the six days of his incarceration, Rani Kaur was not allowed to meet him. Her parents, who live in Tohana village of the same district, contacted the AIAWU and sought its intervention. Bhagwan Dass, the tehsil secretary of the AIAWU, went to Lamba with Rani Kaur's father. Sukhdev Singh and his family refused to release Bacchan Singh. They said that Bacchan Singh owed them Rs.30,000 and until he repaid the amount he would remain chained.

It was at this point that Dass and Buta Singh of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), which works in cooperation with the AIAWU, approached the district administration. They thought that going to the police would be of little help as, they felt, the law-enforcers would be on the landlords' side. They allege that the attitude of even the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), S.K. Setia, whom they approached, was not helpful initially. He could not believe that there could be any case of bonded labour in the teshil. However, he instructed the Tehsildar to visit Lamba. The DYFI activists took the Tehsildar and also a photographer to the village. They managed to locate Bacchan Singh, who was being shifted by the landlord from place to place. Sukhdev Singh's son would not allow him to leave the farm for any reason. But when the Tehsildar arrived, he could do nothing. Bacchan Singh was produced before the SDM, in whose presence the chains were removed. The SDM saw for himself that such slavery was still existent in the country.

Even after all this, it was no easy task for the AIAWU to get a case registered under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It took eight hours for the police to register a First Information Report (FIR).

A case under Sections 17 and 18 of the Bonded Labour Act were registered, but another case, under Section 3 of the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, was registered only after several days. Under Section 17 of the Bonded Labour Act, advancement of bonded debt entails imprisonment for a term that can be extended up to three years and also a fine that may go up to Rs.2,000. Bacchan Singh, who was bleeding from the ears and nose owing to beatings and had several injuries on his body, was first treated at the Civil Hospital at Fatehabad. "Bahut jada koota mujhe (They beat me up badly)," said Bacchan Singh in a feeble voice. As he was beaten on his soles with hockey sticks, he is unable to use footwear; he walks with a pronounced limp. His hearing has been impaired and he has difficulty in speaking. Sukhdev Singh and three others were charged also under various sections of the Indian Penal Code which relate to illegal confinement and assault.

Section 18 of the Bonded Labour Act provides for punishment for extracting work under the bonded labour system. It states: "Whoever enforces, after the commencement of this Act, any custom, tradition, contract, agreement or other instrument, by virtue of which any person or any member of the family of such person or any dependent of such person is required to render any service under the bonded labour system, shall be punishable. Anybody, enforcing, after the commencement of the bonded labour system, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also with fine which may extend to Rs.2,000 and out of that fine, if recovered, payment shall be made to the bonded labourer at the rate of Rs.5 per day for which the bonded labour was extracted from him."

Section 3 of the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is a substantive penal clause and its sub-sections detail various offences of atrocity and provide for different punishment. Section 3(vi) of the Act lays down that whoever, not being a member of an S.C. or an S.T., "compels or entices a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe to do 'begar' or other similar forms of forced or bonded labour other than compulsory service for public purposes imposed by the government" shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term that shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years, and with fine. The law is clear as far as bonded labour is concerned. Here the S.C. and S.T. Act can be invoked as the perpetrators are members of the upper-caste Jat Sikh community and the victim belongs to a Scheduled Caste.

In addition, Rule 6 of the S.C. and S.T. Act lays down that whenever the District Magistrate (D.M.) or the SDM or any other Executive Magistrate or any police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police receives information from any person or upon his own knowledge that an atrocity has been committed on any member of the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes within his jurisdiction, he shall immediately visit the place of occurrence to assess the extent of atrocity, loss of life and damage to property and report to the State government. The D.M. or the SDM or any of the above-mentioned officials are also required to initiate steps to provide protection to the witnesses and other sympathisers of the victim and provide immediate relief to the victims, among other things. The SDM of Ratia tehsil is alleged to have failed in this respect. No security has been provided to the AIAWU members or to Bacchan Singh and his family, although the local landlord community had issued several threats to them. The threats came after their efforts to arrive at an out-of-court settlement failed.

Ramkumar Behbalpuria, State president of the AIAWU, said that the bonded labour system was prevalent in that area and the adjoining districts. Some 200 cases have been identified and the affected people rescued by the AIAWU since 1994, when it came into being. Behbalpuria said that the majority of agricultural workers in the district were in debt and it was difficult to find a village where a landless resident was free from debts. Debts in some cases even go up to Rs.1 lakh. Other villages that faced the practice of bonded labour included Kamana, Bada, Hamzapur, Lamba, Airwa, Ratangarh, Chimon, Burj, Ratahera and Barpur. Often, when there was some media or public attention, landlords "sold" their bonded labourers to others and then "bought" them back when the heat was off, Bebhalpuria said. In one instance 13 persons, including four women, were rescued from a landlord. They had been made to work for long hours in the farms; they were fastened with long chains so that they could move around and work but not escape.

Sushil Indora, who represents the Sirsa (reserved) Lok Sabha constituency in the Lok Sabha, under which Fatehabad comes, did not react to the Bacchan incident. He belongs to the ruling Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). The legislators representing Fatehabad, Tohana and Ratia constituencies also belong to the INLD. The landlords in these areas owe their allegiance to these leaders. Jarnail Singh, who represents Ratia in the State Assembly, reportedly tried for an out-of-court settlement. So far only one of the four accused has been arrested.

Social activist and founder of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, Swami Agnivesh, who met Bacchan Singh, said that action should be taken against the SDM "for dereliction of duty". He said that Bacchan Singh should have been first taken to the court, instead of the police station where he was harassed further. Under the provisions of the relevant Acts and the rehabilitation measures announced by the Central government, the victim should have been given Rs.1,000 first as immediate relief, followed by Rs.19,000. Some form of employment or shelter should also have been provided to him so that the rescued labourer did not lapse into bondage once again, he said.

Agnivesh told Frontline that it was doubtful whether the statutory vigilance committees at the district and sub-division levels existed at all, given the fact that the system of bonded labour was rampant in Fatehabad and adjoining districts. The Bonded Labour Act lays down the norms for the constitution of these committees, which should comprise social workers as well as government representatives and nominees of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes. Apart from their advisory role, these committees are meant to provide for the economic and social rehabilitation of the freed labourers. The National Human Rights Commission, he said, had asked the authorities in all districts to constitute vigilance committees.

The bonded labour system and bonded-labour-like conditions exist in parts of Fatehabad, Sirsa, Kaithal, West Jind, Karnal, Panipat and Rohtak. While the first four districts are characterised by the presence of big landlords and landholdings, the latter three have relatively smaller landholdings. The exploitation of workers is more in the former, where it is rare to find any worker getting the minimum agricultural wage of Rs.72.12 a day. Women workers are exploited in more than one way. Rural indebtedness is therefore very high in these parts.

Evidently, in a State where social reforms did not really take off and where the benefits of the Green Revolution have been lopsided, exploitation manifests itself in its ugliest form amidst extreme poverty and caste rigidities.

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