Bonded Labor in India: Its Incidence and Pattern
My report on Kol tribal (Roy, Arindam, “Breaking the Shackles: Kol Tribal Labourers”, Economic and Political Weekly, Feb. 5, 2000) has been quoted in a prestigious study: Bonded Labour in India: Its Incidence and Pattern, By Ravi S. Srivastava, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour; DECLARATION/WP/43/2005
[Please see pp 17-18 of the Working Report of Ravi S Srivastava ]
5.2 Bonded Labour Systems among Tribals
The Scheduled Tribes belonging to Orissa, Chhatisgarh, Harahan, Madhya Pradesh,
Southern Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and
Gujarat, who have suffered a gradual erosion of access to traditional livelihood systems, have long been subject to exploitative debt relations leading to loss of land and bondage to non-tribals. The National Commission on Rural Labour devoted some attention to this issue.
Prasad (2001) has reported that in Dakshin Kannada and Udupi districts in Karnataka, the Koraga tribal community of nearly 10,000 people suffers under a system of bondage called Ajalu. The Malekudiya tribal community in Belthangady Taluk of Dakshin Kannada district has been held in the plantations of the masters called Hebbars. The community is denied mobility or the freedom to have their own gardens which could give them some economic independence.
In Orissa, a survey by the NGO Action Aid and twenty other organisations in Malkangiri district, carved out of Koraput, identified 704 bonded tribal labourers. The organisations concluded that there were possibly thousands of tribals from thirteen different tribes working as bonded labourers to landlords in the district (Mander, 2003). The tribals, who had lost most of their land to non-tribals, lived on the brink of subsistence and had no option but to take loans from landlords. In exchange, they or their children were required to work for the landlords for little more than food and some other minor perquisites. Their low wages were adjusted against the interest on the loans they had taken.
The NHRC examined a number of complaints regarding the status of Kol tribals in the districts of Chitrakoot (Madhya Pradesh), Allahabad and Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh).
These have stated that due to dispossession from land, loss of rights to forest produce, illegal quarrying and control of mafias over mining, the Kols were living in bondage and were denied minimum wages. Many of these complaints were upheld by the Commission, which also took the view that the existing system of auction of mining rights, which gave a virtual monopoly to dominant economic interests and prevented tribals from bidding through their self-help groups (SHGs), was totally unjust and led to the exploitation of the tribals (NHRC Annual Report 1999-00).
The NHRC set up an Expert Group in 2000 to examine the problems of the Kol tribals and to develop measures for their social and economic upliftment. According to their
Report (NHRC,2000),the system of bondage was widespread in the Shankargarh silica and sandstone mining region of Allahabad. The silica lease rights for 6 villages were placed with one feudal landlord who mined the area both legally and illegally with the help of contractors. Although a large number of bonded labourers had been released after the promulgation of the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, very few had received rehabilitation grants. The system of bondage still persisted in the area. In some villages, SHGs formed by tribals had been given sandstone mining rights, leading to a tripling of their income (Roy, 2000; NHRC, 2000).
[Please see p 34 of the Working Report of Ravi S Srivastava ]
6. Elimination of Bondage: Nature and Scope of Interventions
The existence of bonded labour is an affront to basic human dignity. There has been some change in the nature and incidence of bonded labour in India as a result of various factors, including the impact of social change and social movements, economic modernisation and State intervention. While these processes have impacted positively on the unfree status of labour in traditional agriculture and in some other sectors, the incidence of bonded labour still remains high in some segments of unorganised industry, the informal sector and in the relatively modern segments of agriculture in some areas.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act created a legislative framework for the elimination of bonded labour in 1976. But, as both the Supreme Court and the NHRC have shown, its implementation by the States has generally remained weak.
The Supreme Court of India has, in a series of judgements, given directions to improve the situation and since 1997, under its direction, the National Human Rights Commission has been directly involved in monitoring the situation and making reports to the Court. In its order of November 11, 1997, passed in the writ petition No. 3992 of 1985 – PUCL vs State of Tamil Nadu and others, the Supreme Court has entrusted to the NHRC the responsibility of monitoring the directions of the Court issued from time to time and the implementation of the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.
The NHRC started monitoring the implementation of the Act in 13 states identified as Bonded Labour Prone states. These are: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar,
Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The Commission has appointed two Special Rapporteurs, Mr. Chaman Lal and Mr. K. R. Venugopal, who have been constantly reviewing the situation in bonded labour prone states and sectors.
The Special Rapporteur in the Northern States has focused on the carpet belt of Uttar
Pradesh consisting of the districts of Varanasi, Bhadohi, Mirzapur, Jaunpur, Sonbhadra and Allahabad, where most of the children employed are migrants from the state of Bihar and Jharkhand, working under extremely oppressive conditions against some petty advances paid to their parents. Their cases are invariably found to be attracting the provisions of the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (Chaman Lal, 2003). The Special Rapporteur has also focused on the problem of Kols in the Pathar area of Uttar Pradesh and has held regular review meetings with officials in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. He has also been assisting the Commission in monitoring and reviewing the situation in other North Indian States and in ensuring that rehabilitation of bonded labourers, especially migrant labourers, takes place on a long-term basis.
In the Southern states, the Special Rapporteur, Mr. K. R. Venugopal, has tried to move in a convergent direction by involving and influencing a number of departments and by including policy making within the ambit of his work. He has particularly highlighted the issues of bonded quarry workers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and bonded labour in silk weaving and powerloom industries in Tamil Nadu. He has held regular meetings with officials in the States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
The Special Action Group constituted by the NHRC and the institution of the Special Rapporteurs has breathed some life into the legislative system and has given support to the grass-root NGOs that have been involved in taking up issues of bonded labour. Further, in September 2000, the NHRC constituted an Expert Group headed by Mr S.
R. Sankaran, to make an assessment of the Bonded Labour situation in the country, examine the extent and effectiveness of the Bonded Labour Laws and enforcement mechanisms and review the functioning of the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for the rehabilitation of the released labourers. The Commission has also constituted groups to study the problem of bonded labour and child labour in a number of areas, including the Kol tribals in Uttar Pradesh and the lock makers of Aligarh.
The identification of bonded labourers continues to present difficulties, and only a small number of bonded labourers are actually identified, almost always due to the persistent efforts of NGOs (NHRC Annual Report, 2000-01). But among those labourers who have been identified and released from bondage, the NHRC finds that the rehabilitation of migrant labourers is being totally neglected (Chaman Lal, 2003).
This is also the view of the Supreme Court of India.49 There can be no doubt that effective prevention of bondage amongst vulnerable groups and the rehabilitation of freed child and adult bonded labourers are complex issues, requiring sustained action from governments, NGOs and the international community.
The Ministry of Labour, Government of India had initiated a Centrally Sponsored Scheme under which Rs 4,000 was initially provided for the rehabilitation of each bonded labourer, to be equally contributed by the Federal and the State government. The amount has since been gradually raised, reaching Rs. 20,000 in May 2000. The Central government also provides assistance for surveys, awareness campaigns and evaluations. Released bonded labourers are given priority in a number of government programmes, such as the distribution of government land, and some States have initiated specific programmes for their rehabilitation. But, by and large, the process of rehabilitation is frequently delayed, particularly in the case of inter-state bonded migrant labourers, and the degree of concerted convergent action required on the part of the administration is rarely forthcoming. Prosecution of employers is also weak.
Since the bonded labourers are very poor and assetless, some can relapse into bondage, while others may experience only a very marginal increase in income. Not being from an entrepreneurial background, bonded labourers may not be able to earn significantly higher incomes or even retain their assets (Mutharayappa, 2002). The National Human Rights Commission has been trying to make the states undertake rehabilitation of the bonded labourers through convergent action, and through helping the bonded labourers form groups or cooperatives which can take up economic activity on a sustained and viable basis. As discussed earlier, in Allahabad district, the Commission has supported the granting of mining leases to SHGs of Kol tribals and opposed a system of action which excludes these groups from bidding for the mining rights.
Since bondage results from severe deprivation arising from lack of assets and adequate livelihood opportunities, a key focus of rehabilitation has to be on providing assets and means of livelihood to the bonded labourers. Efforts to do this are more likely to succeed if the poor are empowered and collectively organised, and if they have the capacity to undertake new activities. Vidyasagar (2001) notes that the distribution of land to 44 bonded labourer families in Kodaikanal was successful because the labourers were given other infrastructural facilities and were supported in their endeavours by an NGO. More importantly, the labourers were used to cultivating land in a similar ecological setting. In another case, cited by Vidyasagar, bonded labourers who were working in stone quarries in Pudukottai district were released by the district administration during the early ‘90s, which also took the initiative in rehabilitating them. The workers were organized into co-operative societies which were provided with quarrying contracts. The rehabilitation money was pooled together to purchase trucks for transportation. Women were given authority within the societies and provided proper training to enable them to fulfil their functions. The Tamil Nadu Government amended the rules under Section 15 of the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, to allow the grant of stone quarrying leases to the released bonded labourers. This became one of the very successful cases of rehabilitation of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu (Murthy 2001).
In the case of the Kol tribals engaged in quarry mining in Shankargarh district of Allahabad, a protracted process of empowerment and organisation led to formation of groups and to demands for lease rights. Due to a supportive district administration and the arduous work of organisations like Sahyog, Sankalp and Mahila Samakhya, the kols gained mining rights in a number of villages, were able to overcome the opposition of contractors and nearly treble their income over a short period of time, drastically reducing bondage in the area.50 However, crucial issues of building managerial capacity and cohesiveness among the self-help groups still remain important.51
Similarly, eleven Sahariya families freed from bondage in a quarry with the help of
an NGO, Bandhua Mukti Morcha, were given lease rights to a 70-bigha quarry in
Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh. This has resulted in higher incomes for the labourers and high royalties for the government. The district administration started a number of convergent schemes to help the released labourers, including the opening of a school and the grant of land. When the contractors refused to pick up the stones, the families were given a tractor and trolley for transport (Bal, 2003). The district, according to BMM, has over 15,000 bonded labourers still working in the stone quarries.52
50 Roy, 2000. Interview with Justice Amar Saran, a former member of the Vigilance Committee in Allahabad, and member of the NHRC Group formed to investigate the condition of the Kols in the Pathar area of Uttar Pradesh.
51 Interview with Sheba Jose, Convenor, Sahyog.
52 For more details, see the CEC submission to the Planning Commission. (CEC 2001b)
[Please see p 41 of the Working Report of Ravi S Srivastava ]
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