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2018 (Narrative date)

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. 

Obaid has been in bonded labour for 25 years and discusses his relationship with his landlord. Obaid talks about being trapped in bonded labour, having to borrow money off other landlords to pay off the ones demanding their money back. He also speaks of his fear of his sons being unable to pay off their debt and his reservations about government schemes.

I fear that my sons will never come out of bonded labor. One is twenty two and the other is twenty five. They only went to school up to third and fifth standard. Once they stopped they went to bonded labor. I have no way to pay off the loans. There is no way out. I’ve been working in bonded labor for 25 years and I think my sons will have to do the same. My younger son owes 40,000 and the older owes 45,000. Both loans were for their marriages.  I am now 60 years old.  I worked for many different landlords. I’ve been working for this landlord since February. I will keep working until I pay off my loan. I don’t know if I’ll be working for the same landlord next year. If not I will work for a different landlord, paying off the debt I still owe.  I am paying off a 25,000 rupee loan. I originally owed 45,000 rupees but have paid off some of it. I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to work or how much I actually pay back the only thing I remember is the extra money I’ve borrowed. Right after I took out my loan the landlord was forcing me to repay. He said, “I want money no matter what you do”. But I didn’t have the money so there was nothing I could do. I had to go to another landlord and take out a loan to pay back the landlord who was forcing me to pay him back. 

My landlord wants me to be loyal and polite to him. If I speak nicely to the landlord he will speak nicely to me. Sometimes the landlord will speak rudely to me if he’s in a rush, but I continue to speak kindly to him. The landlord and I call each other by our names but I never really greet him. I only speak to him when I need to know what work needs to be done. My landlord respects me. If I run into issues I can ask the police for help but I have to pay them first. Everything that I do benefits the landlord. “Landlords are profited by this system because the money which they gave us it will be returned back to them”1. I will repay my loans but will eventually have to borrow money again from another landlord. I can only work for my landlord and cannot go elsewhere to earn money to repay him. If I try to work somewhere else he will send people to find me and bring me back. Once my son left to work somewhere else and the landlord got six to seven people to come to my house asking me where my son was. My son left because he had a fight with the landlord. But my son must pay off his debt.  

My sons use MNREGA but I’m not sure how much money they get. The government doesn’t really give us anything. I can vote but I whoever I vote for won’t do anything to help me. Five years ago my brother won a place in the general seat election for president in a village one kilometer away from me. He couldn’t help my situation because he was uneducated. Because of that he wasn’t given power. Educated people in congress would make decisions for him. He won the election because people ultimately wanted to use him. Politicians do their job for the money.  

My village is filled with people who have loans to pay. There are 15 people in my village and 100 landlords. We all owe money and have to work. But if the women go out to get daily wages there will be nothing for me to eat when I return home. I have to work hard and my children have to work hard too. Maybe then we will be able to improve our lives. Every week my village comes together and brings the money we’ve earned. It’s a small amount. One guy will collect all the money and “pay it off” to the landlords 2. Everyone in our village will continue to work to pay off loans. We’ve been doing this for a year and we are paying off our debt. I think my life will start getting better in five years.  

Good will come to me so I continue to hope. God is the reason for the good and bad things that have happened in my life.  I hope and dream that I will pay off my debt and that my kids will earn daily wages to live a better life. I don’t care if my landlord knows this.  


Narrative provided by

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)