Rescued from bondage, labourers contest in panchayat, ward polls to end illegal practice, bring positive change

In India, the government officially abolished bonded labour in 1976, but the system of forced labour still exists. For example, under one scheme prevalent in granite quarries in India, quarry owners offer wage advances or loans with exorbitant interest rates, trapping workers in debt bondage — in some cases for their entire lives. This was what the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report released in June by US Department of State, claimed.

The report placed India among Pakistan, Singapore, Mexico, and 89 others in its Tier 2 list comprising of countries that didn’t meet minimum standards of the United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act but are making significant efforts to comply with the standards.

In most human trafficking cases in India, entire families are trafficked to work in bondage in construction sites, cotton fields, stone quarries, or brick kilns. More often than not, children of such families find themselves unable to get educated. With time, as generations go on, these children fall into the trap of inter-generational bonded labour, and their nimble fingers never get the chance to hold a pen.

 Rescued from bondage, labourers contest in panchayat, ward polls to end illegal practice, bring positive change

Jasvir Kaur, the wife of a rescued bonded labourer Soni Singh, stood for the Panchayat elections in 2018 in Punjab and won it. Arushi Gupta

However, a quiet change is now taking place. With a refreshing nod to the power of democracy, Jasvir Kaur, the wife of a rescued bonded labourer Soni Singh, stood for the panchayat elections in 2018. The Opposition candidate was from the Congress, the party in power in Punjab. Kaur won with more than a hundred votes.

Rescued from a brick kiln in Patiala in 2012, Singh now works in a music production company. The couple has three daughters, and the eldest is now in school. Education is something bonded labourers cannot even dream of. Those on the fringes of the society are finding a new lease of life, and the Indian electorate and education are enabling this shift. After winning the election, Kaur installed hydro motors for irrigation.

“Due to the Lok Sabha elections, there's a delay in funding. No one in the village gets an electricity bill of less than Rs 5,000 and the present government doesn’t help us in addressing this concern of the locals," said Singh. The 73rd constitutional amendment grants panchayats control over 29 state subjects, including primary health, electricity, sanitation, and agriculture, but gram panchayats are powerless before the bureaucracy and have to keep waiting for approvals and release of funds. While government officials execute policies for state governments, gram panchayats are struggling for more power. The scope of representation in local bodies, however, has expanded, feel Kaur and Singh, who were once perishing away in bondage.

Over 400 kilometres away, in the coastal town of Amaragiri in Nagarkurnool district of Telangana, a similar life story unfolds itself. In January 2016, the village of Amaragiri was rescued from the practice of selling its catch well below the market rate to the Golla community that owned the boats and the nets. Members of the Chenchu tribe had been in intergenerational bondage for three decades and were even prohibited from leaving the village.

Recently, 23-year-old Mallaiah from the Chenchu tribe was sworn in as the Upa Sarpanch (deputy sarpanch) of Amaragiri village in Nagarkurnool district. Two others — Devamma and Ajamma — were also elected to the gram panchayat. The NGOs National Adivasi Solidarity Council (NASC) and International Justice Mission (IJM), along with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), made their release possible.

"The Central and state budgets allocated to tribals are not utilised by tribal communities. Instead, other communities make use of the funds. The people of Amaragiri realised that only leadership will win them this right," said Vasu, a member of FSD.

According to him, in most villages in the Nagarkurnool district, the upper castes control funds. He believes that there should be equal representation from all communities in elections, especially from the SC/ST communities, where the vacuum of local leadership is suppressing people’s voices.

In November 2016, 34 individuals were rescued from a road construction site in Chikodi, Karnataka, out of which 31 were issued release certificates. After their rescue, they were transferred to their native village in Nagarkurnool.

A recent momentous decision by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment and the district administration of Belgaum, also known as Belagavi, in Karnataka gives new hope to both unsaved and rescued bonded labourers in India. Out of the 34 rescued individuals, 24 have been awarded the SC/ST compensation of ₹75,000 each, which is one of the largest compensation packages given to bonded labour survivors.

In Telangana too, the district administration has played a major role in rehabilitating trafficking victims. The district administration of Narayanpet recently rescued 79 individuals from a kiln of the MKS Brick Industries in Makthal, 25 of them children.

The construction industry is another sector where bonded labour is high, claim experts. Reuters

The construction industry is another sector where bonded labour is high, claim experts. Reuters

"No political parties raise awareness about bonded labour. They don’t put the issue in manifestos. The lack of political will is evident," said Venkat Rao, the District Magistrate of Narayanpet, a new district carved out from Mahbubnagar district in Telangana. Most labourers in the area are engaged in cotton fields, brick kilns, and quarries.

Rao conducts awareness camps with revenue officers, the police, and the public to prevent people from being trapped into bonded labour. "The presiding officer for the revenue division was unaware of the laws. In fact, some officers do not even know that there are laws for rehabilitation," he says.

Under the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, released bonded labourers shall receive full rehabilitation upon the conviction of the offender. Although the government enhanced the initial cash assistance for bonded labourers in January 2017, survivors continue to wait to get their cash assistance of ₹20,000 in Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This is linked with roadblocks in the disbursement of funds and a denial of the existence of bonded labour by state governments.

Kutty Kunnapattu, rescued in 2008, was a panchayat president in Tamil Nadu from 2010 to 2015. He is currently a member of the Released Bonded Labourers Association (RBLA), an organisation that helps rescue bonded labourers.

Reminiscing about his earlier days, he said, “We were made to work long hours for little money as they hurled abuses at us. No political party or MLA came to our support. It was very tough for me to come out of that dark time, and my father really helped me."

A native of Kunnapattu, one of the 50 villages of the Thiruporur panchayat union in Kancheepuram district, he had won the panchayat elections as an independent candidate by securing 400 votes.

Since then, Kutty has managed to bring at least five of his fellow bonded labourers out of the deplorable practice. "If all of us (bonded labourers) come to power through elections, we will talk to the chief minister and collectors to make Tamil Nadu a better place and end this practice that destroys lives of many workers and their children,” he added.

Bonded labour is an unfortunate consequence of the vastly unchecked unorganised sector, and the entire construction sector is plagued by the problem.

"Be it a big construction company churning out million dollar projects, or government-sponsored construction, agreements that claim that these companies provide numerous facilities to their workers remain only on paper," explained Ramashanker Kushwaha, the president of Sampark Society, an organisation that has been working for the welfare of migrant labourers and their families since the past thirteen years.

The settlements of migrant workers are uncertain. They move to different places in about two years due to which their children are not able to get an education. Though hundreds of these children are admitted into schools, most drop out.

"Delhi’s government schools are overflowing," Kushwaha remarks, adding that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia used to run Kabir, an NGO that used to help migrant workers.

With the inception of the Aam Aadmi Party, he feels, all that came to a halt. "These labourers are far away from their homes and cannot vote. Priorities have changed. Vote banks matter more than the welfare of these labourers," he says.

According to Sampark Society, often children who grow up in bonded labour continue the cycle of poverty. Many times, members of the Sampark Society found them working in construction sites near and of the North Campus of Delhi University. While most continued as construction workers, some managed to receive graduation degrees and tear themselves away from the gloom of poverty that envelopes construction workers. Sampark Society educated thousands of children. Today, one of them is a national-level archery champion.

Rescued in 2014, Renu Devi belongs to a village in Bihar held in the kamiya system, a form of customary agricultural bondage. The villagers had been part of the gruesome system for three generations. With the help of IJM’s partner Justice Ventures International (JVI), 162 labourers, along with Renu and her husband, were rescued.

After the rescue, an illiterate Renu applied for and received compensation from the labour and SC/ST departments. She purchased livestock to provide resources to sustain her family. Her story took a historic turn in 2016, two years after the rescue. Villagers encouraged her to contest for ward elections from Sarfaraz Bhiga in Gaya.

The clay brick industry in India has a long association with bonded labour. Reuters

The clay brick industry in India has a long association with bonded labour. Reuters

The individuals who had previously won the ward elections consistently tried to instigate villagers against her, telling them that she isn’t worldly wise and wouldn’t make a good leader. Yet, she won.

After her election, Devi built a community hall for the village and has also helped provide employment to many villagers. She abolished the kamiya system in her village, laid down new roads, and established a proper sewage system. Her husband, who now works as a contractor for the construction of roads, provided employment to dozens of rescued bonded labourers.

In what is a healthy sign for the Indian electoral system, people like Renu have overcome infinitesimal obstacles to extend their hand towards improving India.

"When we first visited Sarfaraz Bhiga with an investigation team, we showed a bonded labourer a Rs 10 note. He said that he did not know what it was. We asked him if he knew when Diwali and Dussehra were this year. He did not know what they were. I visit many villages and districts everywhere. We say that India has gained independence. The truth is, it hasn’t," says Vivek, who has spent a long time fighting human trafficking and forced labour.

In 2013, the UPA government celebrated nine years of power, advertising itself by claiming that it had eradicated bonded labour through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005).

Most governments claim that bonded labour does not exist. Facts suggest otherwise.

Out of the 4,122 rescued from bondage by seven NGOs across Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh between May 2016 to May 2018, only 2,252 received their release certificates under the new Bonded Labour (BL) Rehabilitation Scheme. Among these, 1,110 received the initial rehabilitation cash assistance of Rs 20,000.

It is significantly harder for migrant workers to access rehabilitation and avail government schemes once they are rescued from bondage. Despite National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) guidelines, the state government does not provide enough support. The Bonded Labour System Act penalises offenders with jail term up to only three years and needs to be more stringent towards human traffickers.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has proposed the issuance of a Universal Access Number for each construction worker.

“If India is able to strictly implement the Minimum Wages Act, the Inter-state Migrant Labour Act, and the Employees Provident Fund Act, bonded labour can be reduced considerably,” said Rao.

The three acts ensure that employees are provided minimum wages and protected from bonded labour. In fact, increasing access to welfare schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojna, a public housing scheme that targets free bonded labourers without a house can be instrumental in their rehabilitation.

It is still a distant dream for people rescued from bondage and bereft of basic human rights to come out and contest the Lok Sabha elections, but their entry into panchayat and ward elections is a positive step forward for India. Times are changing. The subdued continue, and shall always continue, to raise their voices over the deafening silence their oppressors have blanketed them under.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 11:40:20 IST