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.
Mahendra has been working as a bonded labourer in Uttar Pradesh for years, having borrowed money first to support his family, and again when his son needed a heart operation. Here, Mahendra suggests that bonded labour is often better than daily wagework and that government schemes are ineffective.
My son is two years old. He requires an operation on his heart because there’s a hole. The operation costs around 70,000 rupees, which I can get if I work for JEETA. I initially will pay 40,000 rupees and then the rest will be paid later. NREGA is also an option but they don’t pay enough. We never went to school so I want to make sure my son is healthy so that he can eventually receive an education. My wife watches our son at home.
Before that he was a servant, he didn’t get paid for his work, he was only fed. He wasn’t able to start saving money until he was married. Once he married he became a daily wageworker. My father has been in bonded labor for 6 years. Earlier in his life when work was slow as a daily wageworker he would take credits from others to take care of his family. The credit became bigger and bigger. Eventually he had to find a way to pay it all off. Now my father and I are both in bonded laborers and work for different landlords. I had taken 2,000 rupees initially for yearly expenses but my mom asked me to take some money so I took out an extra 10,000. The landlord gives me a 5,000 rupee advance each year that is enough to feed my family for the whole year. I currently have 70,000 in debt. This year I’ve started paying off debt without taking on more. As I work my landlord he keeps 20,000 which goes to paying of my debt. I need to pay off all my debt to my landlord. I need to make sure that I do work and not anything dumb. Around my landlord I make sure to behave well to both him and the other workers. I don’t believe that we need to treat each other like family. The landlord and worker should simply treat each other respectfully and fairly.
Landlords will continue to rely on laborers to do their housework. They also need laborers to farm and take care of cattle. There are a lot of jobs that landlords need workers to complete for them. Being in bonded labor worker may be better than a daily wageworker because the landlord has to pay a daily wageworker everyday compared to a laborer.
We never went to school so I want to make sure my son is healthy so that he can eventually receive an education. My wife watches our son at home.
Being elected in politics won’t help you. People there just end up working and won’t get any benefits. We hope that they’ll maybe one day help our people but that doesn’t seem to happen. There’s no other group that help us. 9 years ago there was one group called VJ Bank that gave loans but since people never paid it back it stopped working.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)