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.
Lal was forced to take over his father’s debt after he became too sick to work. Lal talks of having to work as both a bonded labourer to pay off his father’s debt while also taking daily wage work to support his family.
I have a good life; I have good health and a family. I have 4 sisters and one brother the other has passed. I have been married for 3 years and have a son who is 2. My father is sick and old. He is so sick that he’s unable to go to work. He found himself in bonded labor after borrowing money from a landowner. He cannot work now because his body is tired. The landowner arrived at my house asking who would pay off the money he owes. The landowner shows me a piece of paper that is confusing and I don’t understand what’s on it. He only tells me how much money my father owes and where he needs to work. I don’t understand the situation. My mother tells me that my father and the landowner got into an argument once. They negotiated that my father would owe 60,000 rupees. Nothing was written down prior to this. There were no official documents saying how much my father borrowed or how long he would work. They have documents now but the landowner holds onto them. My father has worked to pay off 40,000 rupees. His debt is now mine. The landowner is now called landlord. His name is Nagesh.
I am not angry at or resent my father. “What has happened has happened” and I will pay the debt. My life will improve once the debt is gone. I must also work as a daily wageworker in order to take care of my wife and child. God has a plan for my life; He knows that I am a good man because I have worked hard. Having to pay off my father’s debt is not a punishment from God.
On Nagesh’s land I farm the sugar cane, bananas, and other crops on the property. He is a fair landlord. However the daily wageworkers are treated better since he knows they can leave at anytime. He gives them extra rupees so that they’ll stay. The daily wageworkers can go to another landlord and get their wages at another field. I am committed to his property and cannot leave.
Work ends at 5pm but my house is 3 hours away, so I get home at 8pm. The landlord used to live in my village but moved farther in order to own larger property. People ask me why I continue to work for Nagesh. I’m not allowed to work somewhere else and pay him with the money I receive. I must pay off my father’s debt by working on his land.
I am aware of the laws. You are allowed to go to the police if your landlord is not treating you well. The police will take your landlord in. I promise to never turn Nagesh in. He is a good man. I know other landlords that treat their workers poorly. Nagesh will ask me how I am doing and if I am feeling well. He brings tea and coffee to all his workers. It is never served on the dishes from his house. I wish he treated me like family but I know I am paying off a loan. I hope to pay off all the debt by next February.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)