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.
Bhagwan worked as a bonded labourer in Uttar Pradesh for eight years. Paying off debt he borrowed for his marriage, Bhagwan often went unpaid for his labour and was forced to work extra time to support his family. Bhagwan was finally able to leave his situation with the help of charitable organisation JEEVIKA.
I have worked so hard, it is now time for me to develop my land and take care of my family. I worked as a bonded laborer for 8 years. I was paying off debts that were from my marriage. We had to work so much, our landlord wouldn’t send us home so I wasn’t able to go home to see my wife and children. I had to get the extra money because we were poor. I knew what I was getting myself into. My debt had to be paid off and I always knew how much I owed. I was willing to work extra time if it meant that I would get the money I needed. My work was solely farming. He had 30 acres of land where he farmed tamarin trees. My landlord wouldn’t pay me sometimes because my earnings would go directly to my debts. When I had 5,000 rupees left of debt I became a coolie worker where I paid off the rest of my debt. The pay was 25 rupees a day. I worked for about 2 years to repay the debt.
The taslidar came and told me to not work as a bonded laborer anymore. When they tried to talk to my landlord he said I couldn’t leave because I still had a debt to pay. Later JEEVIKA came and took a picture. They asked my landlord why he continues to cheat these people. It wasn’t until JEEVIKA came that I was able to leave my situation. However it caused tension between my landlord and JEEVIKA. I’m not sure how much detail I can actually go into1. This all happened about 20 years ago. I’m now 50 years old so it’s been a while.
Honestly leaving bonded labor has changed my life but landlord’s behavior hasn’t changed. When I filed my case I didn’t feel bad. I remembered all the bad moments and knew that it was time to go. My landlord always tries to get me to come back and work for him. I don’t feel obligated to. I worked hard and he treated me poorly at times. I remember the harassment that I received, so I don’t feel bad if I don’t go to work. I know the landlord feels bad that’s why he’s always trying to give me work. He does get mad at times though. I must begin to make a good life for myself.
When we were poor we needed the landlord to give us money. That was the only way I could get money to get married. Now the landlord pays daily wageworkers more money so that the work will get done. He probably wants the old system of bonded labor to return but it won’t happen.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)