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.
Pandit is a third generation bonded labourer after inheriting his family’s debt. Pandit tells of how he was subjected to physical abuse from his landlord who was never happy with the work he did and that the police did not take complaints seriously. Now out of bonded labour for 18 years, Pandit does not want to go back.
I am a third generation bonded laborer. My father took my grandfather’s debt when he was 15 years old. He has been out of bonded labor for the past 18 years. I have four brothers, but because I am the first son I had to take my fathers debt. While I was in bonded labor all of my brothers went and got an education. I also told my children to get an education so they wouldn’t have to experience this. However one of my kids is already failing a class so I don’t know what will happen to him.
The landlord kept track of my debt status and whether or not I had paid it off. However my landlord was not good. He would beat me and the other bonded laborers when he didn’t like the work we did. He’d pull us by our ears and would tell us to work harder. We became fearful of him. People told me that I should have tried and found a different landlord to get money from. It doesn’t work like that though.1 When there was conflict with the landlord I would try to run away. Once my father found out he would beat me and would tell me to return back to work. Now that I am not a bonded laborer I don’t want to go back to the same landlord for daily wages. I fear that he might try to turn me back into a bonded laborer. Though I’ve paid my time, I still fear my landlord, I fear that he will come back.
My master did not need me to do work for him. I did not have money and therefore I needed the landlord. I needed to pay of the work from my grandfather, father and myself. I need money for food and my family. In order to get the money I need I have to get someone to give it to me.
We always worked hard but the landlords were never happy. They were happier when we were working but they still beat us. When I sent in my complaint my landlord changed. He seemed unhappy with what I did. He was confused why we sent a complaint in since he gave us food to farm and water to drink. But he never let me enter his house. But if he did ever try to invite me, I wouldn’t enter. When I would go to the movies with other bonded laborers my landlord would send people out to beat us up. I couldn’t escape, even if I wanted to. I had to set in a complaint or else I would have remained in the same difficult situation. The police only help you if you give them money. If you go empty handed they don’t give you anything that’s useful or helpful, the police would beat bonded laborers who showed up without money.
It didn’t bring me joy when I sent in my complaint. All the bonded laborers did it too. It was something we had to do. Our landlords didn’t threaten us after the complaint was settled. I wonder if he felt betrayed? The people who are in lower caste are the ones who end up getting beat up for complaining. The higher you are the less likely it is that you’ll get beat.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)