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.
Despite his family having their own land, Kishan became a bonded labourer after taking a 10,000 rupee advance for working on a farm. Though he was able to take daily wagework when offered to him, he was scolded by his landlord for it, who insisted that he gave him money so he should work on his farm. Though Kishan states that he was a good landlord, he also suggests that bonded labour brought pain in to his life.
I’m 25 years old, I’ll probably get married within the next two years. My brother and I take care of our parents because my father is blind and my mother stays at home. With two sisters and two brothers we take care of one another as we all live in the same village. My parents are busy paying off loans and my sister’s wedding. I only went till 2nd standard in school my brother went to 12th standard so he makes a lot of decisions for me. Since my sisters had to get arranged and we had family problems, I needed to find a way to make money. My siblings and I are doing better than our parents but we still must work hard.
We have about 4 acres of land that my parents bought and then passed it down. We don’t make a lot of money on our family farm. The crops sell we have a good rainy season. Our cotton sells at a range of 12,000-30,000. The farm used to make us money but now we end up paying for a lot of things. Since my brothers and I share the farm we share the profits with each other. If our crops continue to not do well I will go back to the landlord to work. Right now we sell rocky and cotton. We’re hoping that that the rainy season comes soon since these crops require lots of water and we don’t have a bore well on the farm. We planted cotton five years ago but since it doesn’t frequently rain in our village we have to wait. There aren’t any employees working on our land so we take care of it ourselves. My brother and I worked on our family farm since childhood. My other brother works as a bus conductor. My final brother isn’t working right now because of treatment that he got some years back.
The government helps some people in our village, but not me. My brother told me that the government gives some people bore wells, but I don’t think there are other types of assistance programs for people like me1. But a month ago some people came to release me out of bonded labor. My brother takes care of all those government paperwork types of things since I really don’t know about it. He also makes a lot of decisions for me. From what I understand the papers that were given say that I am no longer a bonded laborer and that the government will compensate me.
Prior to that my landlord would allow me to bathe and have food at his place. I wasn’t allowed to go to other places. When I first started I took a one time 10,000 rupee advance, which I’ve cleared working around 2 to 3 months in the landlord’s farm. In a year I pay around 20,000-30,000 that goes towards my loan. I felt that this was a fair amount to pay off. People call me when I don’t have work and will ask me to come to their farms and I get daily wages. However my landlord scolds me when I do this and says, oh I have given you money, why aren’t you coming to my farm2. My landlord is a well-known person in our village. There are only good landlords here. I call my landlord brother and he calls me by my name. I’m offered coffee with the same cups that they drink from in the kitchen, except I drink it outside of the house.
I worked everyday throughout the whole year but got breaks during holidays, weddings, and other events. If there were times when I needed to borrow money my landlord gave it to me. He still keeps track of how much I’ve borrow and writes how much I have to pay off in a book. He also writes down how many days I’ve worked. I watch him write in the book inside while I stand outside. We never signed any formal paper because it’s based on trust. I believe my landlord is telling the truth when he says how much longer I have to work, he’d never try to cheat me.
It was in my own interest to stay on my landlord’s farm. I never had to go back and forth from my home to the farm. I went home once every three days to take a bath and sleep. I’d also go home for a couple days if I had a fever or felt sick. Daily wageworkers would leave and sometimes not come back the next morning. Other landlords would try to get them to work on their farms, convincing them that they’d pay them so much to work. If I need work I will return to his farm as a daily wageworker. He was a nice man who always helped me when I had a problem, he gave me good advice and encouraged me to live a better life.
Today my landlord tried to call me and said that I have 2,000 rupees left of debt to pay off, but I know that I am done. I’ve told him that I’m not going to come and work. Even if I go give him the money he will ask me to work, he has to take my money because he won’t get both money and work from me. Being a bonded laborer has brought pain into my life. My family was poor and didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. I’d have to go out, ask a landlord for money and then work for a long time. I’ve experienced this pain and never want to relive it again.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)