Bonded labour

New slave trade

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Bonded labourers who were rescued from a brick kiln in Karnataka. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The agarbatti factory on the outskirts of Bangalore from where 107 bonded labourers were rescued. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Aryan Lama, 21, originally a resident of Kakarbhitta in Nepal, was rescued from an agarbatti unit. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The sleeping quarters of the labourers in the agarbatti factory. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The rescued labourers before they were sent to a rehabilitation centre in Bangalore. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Malinayaka, currently an agricultural bonded labourer at H.D. Kote taluk in Mysore district. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Freed labourers with their release certificates in H.D. Kote taluk of Mysore district. They were released in 2012 but are yet to receive their compensation. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The recent rescue of bonded workers from a Karnataka factory exposes the mutating form of bonded labour in the unorganised sector, where trafficking with the intention to exploit is the major feature.

FOUR years ago, Aryan Lama, then 17, was working as a driver in Kakarbhitta in Nepal. He intended to marry Roshni, the girl of his dreams. Looking to augment their incomes, the couple reached Siliguri in northern West Bengal where they met an agent who lured them with promises of secure jobs and substantial salaries. Little did they know that they were on their way to becoming bonded labourers in south India. They were brought via Delhi to Tirupattur, a town in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu, where they were put to work in an agarbatti factory.

After a few days, Lama was separated from Roshni, whom he has not seen again. For three years, he laboured in Tirupattur before he was moved to a similar factory on the outskirts of Bangalore. Promised a salary of Rs.6,500 a month, he was given nothing except basic food and a place to sleep. He had to work 18 hours a day and was not allowed to leave the premises of the factory, where he had to share his sleeping quarters with more than 100 other workers.

Lama was finally rescued on May 28, along with 106 other trafficked workers, from the jail-like conditions in which they had been held. Lama told Frontline: “We were not allowed to talk to one another or leave the premises, [which were] guarded by Rottweilers. We were also beaten very regularly. My work was to pack the rolled agarbattis, and the food that they gave us was fit only for pigs!”

The rescue was conducted by a team led by the Karnataka Police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU), including members of an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) called International Justice Mission (IJM). The AHTU is a constituent unit of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) while the IJM works on issues of bonded labour. This was the largest rescue conducted in a single raid in Bangalore. Of the 107 bonded labourers, 43 came from West Bengal and 40 from Assam, while 22 came from Jharkhand and two from Nepal.

Two other workers who were rescued that day were Bablu Lakda and Panchu Kujoor, both 35 and members of a Scheduled Tribe (S.T.). They were brought to Bangalore 20 months ago from a tea plantation in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. “We were promised wages of Rs.9,000 a month when the agent recruited us, but forget that, they did not even give me medicine when I was suffering from typhoid. I couldn’t even inform my relatives about my precarious state as they never let us call our relatives back home,” Lakda said.

More than 200 kilometres away, in the rural hinterland of southern Karnataka, Malinayaka, 55, was having a rare off day because of severe illness. He lives in Udbur colony, which is part of Annur gram panchayat in H.D. Kote taluk of Mysore district. A member of the Nayaka Scheduled Tribe, Malinayaka had borrowed Rs.60,000 from his Vokkaliga landlord 12 years ago to conduct the wedding of his eldest daughter. He gets paid a lump sum of Rs.18,000 during the Ugadi festival every year when oral contracts are renewed. His fellow workers, on the other hand, are paid Rs.200 a day. He cannot seek work elsewhere or leave his village without clearing his loan. Malinayaka has worked as a bonded labourer for 45 years of his life with three different landlords.

Between bouts of coughing, he described his life as a bonded labourer: “I’ve been working for 12 years now in lieu of repayment. My day begins at six in the morning and continues till late at night. Work is especially tough when the tobacco plants need to be roasted. Elephants are also a menace when crops are ready to be sown and sometimes I have to stay up in a watchtower through the night to scare them away. There are no holidays. On days when I cannot turn up for work, my son is supposed to work.”

Malinayaka’s case is not unique. This correspondent met three other jeethas, as bonded labourers are called in Karnataka, in the same taluk, who were bonded to their landlords for various time periods after having taken advances ranging from Rs.20,000 to Rs.50,000. Often, there is a system of patronage in place enforced by caste hierarchy where the labourer feels obligated to work for his landlord. The lack of a written agreement and the illiteracy of the bonded labourers enable landlords to exploit them.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLA) of 1976, defines, in a lengthy paragraph, the “bonded labour system” as a system of forced labour under which the debtor enters into an agreement with the creditor in consideration of an advance (usually) and in return offers his labour free or for nominal wages. He also forfeits his freedom of employment and the right to move freely and to sell his labour at the appropriate market rate. Both the case studies discussed above, from urban and rural Karnataka, are clear examples of bonded labour. The case of Malinayaka is the traditional and more commonly understood version of bonded labour while the case of Lama and other rescued labourers is an example of the mutating form of bonded labour in the unorganised sector, where trafficking with the intention to exploit is the major feature. Both these forms of bonded labour are widely prevalent in Karnataka. In a 2013 report, the Walk Free Foundation, an international organisation working for the eradication of slavery, said: “The country with the largest estimated number of people in modern slavery is India, [with] between 13.3 million and 14.7 million people enslaved.” Slavery here refers to bonded labour. Jan Breman, a Dutch sociologist with expertise in labour issues, estimates that close to 50 million people are trapped in debt bondage labour in India. Siddharth Kara, a fellow on Human Trafficking with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and author of Bonded Labour: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, makes a more modest estimate of 11.7 million bonded labourers in the entire country. These varying estimates, while clearly pointing to the wide prevalence of bonded labour in India, also show how difficult it is to accurately estimate the extent of bondage.

Karnataka figures high on the list of agricultural bonded labourers. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Labour and Employment (2008-09) shows that 63,437 bonded labourers have been released in the State since the BLA came into effect. This is only second to the figure of Tamil Nadu, where 65,573 bonded labourers were released in the same period. On the other hand, larger States such as Uttar Pradesh (28,846) and Madhya Pradesh (13,317) had fewer bonded labourers released. Two contrasting inferences can be drawn from these data: either Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have a much higher incidence of bonded labour or the BLA has been more stringently implemented in these States when compared with larger States in north India. Existing information does not provide sufficient data to arrive at either conclusion convincingly.

A dedicated organisation in Karnataka, the Jeetha Vimukti Karnataka (Bonded Labour Free Karnataka), which has been active since the mid-1990s, has made substantial contributions in identifying and releasing bonded labour. Jeevika, as the organisation is commonly known, has a presence in all districts of the State (down to the gram panchayat level) and draws its activists from families of bonded labourers. This is one of the reasons for its success in identifying bonded labour, as its activists empathise with and recognise cases of bonded labour. Their strategy is to visit a particular village at night and discuss issues of agricultural labour. Its activists are trained in understanding bonded labour in the context of the prevalent caste hierarchies of the region. Jeevika claims to have facilitated and secured the release of several thousand bonded labourers since 1993. Basavaraj, its Mysore district convener, said 842 bonded labourers were officially freed in H.D. Kote taluk between 2001 and 2014.

Kiran Kamal Prasad, the coordinator of Jeevika, said, “Bonded labour in agriculture in Karnataka still has some remnants of the traditional form involving the patron-and-client relationship. Most of it is now reduced to economic transactions. Thus, bonded labourers, 85 to 90 per cent of whom belong to S.C. [Scheduled Caste] and S.T. communities, are vulnerable to the worst form of exploitation from within the feudal system as well as the capitalist system which agriculture has become a part of.”

The Karnataka Action Plan on Bonded Labour, 2008, referred to the National Sample Survey (NSS) data that estimated that 6 per cent of agricultural labour in Karnataka was bonded. When calculated using Census 2001 data, this would amount to around 3,73,617 workers, Prasad said. “If we include bonded labour that is increasingly found in occupations in the unorganised sector like brick kilns, stone quarries, etc., the present number of bonded labour in Karnataka could be around six lakh,” Prasad added.

This number is difficult to verify independently as there is no nodal entity in the State that keeps track of bonded labour across agricultural and other unorganised sectors. While the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (RDPR) Department keeps track of bonded labourers in agriculture, the AHTU is responsible for looking at issues of trafficked labour. The formation of the AHTU in 2013 at the State level after the amendment to Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with the trafficking of persons for exploitation, has significantly improved the detection and subsequent rescue of trafficked bonded labourers in Karnataka.

Esther Daniel, a Bangalore-based director of IJM, gives a pointer to the number of trafficked labourers. She says she has personally been involved in missions in seven districts in southern Karnataka that rescued close to 2,500 labourers over the past eight years. This is only the tip of the iceberg. “The trafficked labour comes from Odisha (mainly from the impoverished Balangir district), Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Within Karnataka, we find that a lot of migrants from backward districts in north Karnataka are trafficked and made to work in appalling conditions,” she said. Trafficked bonded labour is heavily used in brick kilns and rock quarries around Bangalore. Within the city, rescue operations have been conducted in bag-making and agarbatti-manufacturing units and rice mills.

Official freedom is secured when the labourer is given a release certificate by the Deputy Commissioner (Collector) of the district. The certificate is accompanied with a lump sum Rs.20,000 (equally shared by the State and Central governments) to kickstart the rehabilitation of the labourer. Often, the compensation payment is delayed. In Nanjayyana Colony of Kasaba Hobli in H.D. Kote taluk, for instance, 11 bonded labourers belonging to the Adi Karnataka caste (a Scheduled Caste belonging to the Holeya Dalit agglomeration in the State) were given release certificates in 2012, but their compensation remains unpaid. With limited employment options in the village, they have to seek employment again from hostile landlords. In such circumstances, they remain vulnerable to being trapped in the cycle of debt bondage if suitable rehabilitation measures are not taken immediately on their release. In the case of bonded trafficked labour, the situation is even more dismal as the labourers are usually sent back home. They eventually receive the payment of Rs.20,000, but the wages of their hard labour remain unpaid. A system where the agent/owner/landlord becomes responsible for clearing their wages according to the prevailing rates needs to be put in place to protect the labourers from slipping back into the cycle of exploitation.

There is a chapter on bonded labour in the “India Exclusion Report 2013-2014” published by the Centre for Equity Studies, which recommends five measures that can be taken by the state to reduce bonded labour. These are: broadening of the definition of labour bondage; acknowledgement and identification of bonded labour; the streamlining of the BLA with other laws such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986; release and support for rehabilitation of bonded labour; and enforcement of minimum wages and the idea of decent work. All these measures need to be implemented so that bonded labour can be gradually eradicated.

The failure to eradicate bonded labour in Karnataka and the rest of India is an indictment of the BLA as it has been in operation for the past 39 years. Organisations like the IJM hope the laws will become stricter in the future and a high-powered committee on trafficking will be formed with the ability to transcend departmental autonomy, which is usually an impediment to efficient implementation of laws regarding trafficking.

Until then, there will be many more cases like those of Lama and Malinayaka in both urban and rural Karnataka.