The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day there were nearly 8 million people living in modern slavery in India. While the bonded labour system is formally abolished and criminalised, recent research indicated that bonded labour is still prevalent in India. A 2016 report found that in the state of Tamil Nadu, 351 of 743 spinning mills used bonded labour schemes, otherwise known as Sumangali schemes. Similarly in granite quarries, wage advances and loans with an interest ranging from 24% to 36% are used to bond workers. Situations of debt bondage are often aggravated by the need to raise emergency funds or take on loans for health crises.
Atal works as a bonded labourer in Uttar Pradesh. He tells of the difference between his and his father’s time, the restrictions placed on him due to his caste and how it is almost impossible to ever pay off borrowed debt. He also tells of how he once stood for election in his community in an attempt to obtain justice for bonded labourers.
My village taught me how to write my name. I never learned how to read or write properly. I sent my three children to school. They each got a formal education even though my two sons are now in bonded labor. In the past my family struggled to have food to eat. My father was a bonded laborer. In my fathers time there was so little food that the landlords didn’t even have enough to feed laborers. It was a hard time. I had to take care of my father since no one else did. My mother wasn’t feeling well either. My caste is Madrigah, the lowest caste. I’m not allowed to go into the house of an upper caste. When they give me food I take it outside to eat. The caste system that I am in is “unfair and bad”. I fear that I’ll get beat if I try to enter in an upper caste house. “But we are also human beings, they are also human beings.”1 It’s a bad thing that these rules are there.
When I was 9 years old I had to work because my family did not have any food to eat. Children couldn’t get paid in money so we got food in return. My landlord would only offer me cloth and food. Even if I think it was unfair now, at the time it was an inevitable situation. As a continued I worked for one landlord for 6 years and the second one for 10 years.
It is almost impossible for a bonded laborer to pay off debt. They have so much debt and no food to eat so they become bonded laborers. But there are continuous problems and people end up taking out more loans. They can only get out of their situation if the government lends a hand. That’s the only way a bonded laborer could pay off their landlord.2
We call landlords sokurey3 (wealthy man). My landlord was not a wealthy man but he still gave me food. As a bonded laborer I didn’t work for money, I just got food. The government gave the landlord two acres of land. He farms a lot of different crops. He gets his water from a borehole from the government to assist him. I got my land 10 years ago and am paying it off to the government little by little. I can only pay when I get profits from my crops.
I have worked for three landlords for a total of about 15 years, one was abusive and beat me. 4 My landlord was a nice man, and I wouldn’t file a case against him.5 My landlord threatened me and asked why I filed a case against him. He said he has given me food, nurtured me, and gave me life. He was angry and I didn’t know what to do. I never want to be a bonded laborer again. All bonded laborers are hurting. I fear that if I go back to that lifestyle that I’ll continue to be threatened and that I won’t be able to live freely. “We (daily wage workers) have freedom. Independently we working and earning money now. And in those days we were like slave, we were suppressed by the people, we used to listen according to their terms, that’s why we don’t want this life.”
I believe that my words are valued and that people listen to me in my community. I once stood in an election as a member but lost by one vote. My wife then ran and won in her election. There are too many people you have to talk to which makes elections hard. I had to run for my people. Those government people “used to deceive us, people use to do unjustice to us”. I worked as a bonded laborer and I want to give justice to the people, that’s why I ran.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)