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.
Rajirishi inherited his father’s debt after he passed away and though he was able to pay it off after 5 years, he has now accumulated around 60,000 rupees of his own debt, forcing him to work as a bonded labourer. Rajirishi tells of how daily wagework does not provide enough to support his family, and of the relationship between him and his landlord.
If at the end of my life I am not able to pay anything I will tell my landlord that my son will also work as a bonded laborer and he will pay off my loan. Right now my son doesn’t have any money. He goes to school but he still has to work because I don’t have enough money to take care of my family. Right now we live in a small house but my plan is to get enough money to start building a larger house for my family. Sometimes my child has to sleep outside of house because there’s not enough room for all of us. I don’t want my kids to suffer through the same things I am. I try my best yet my best is never good enough. I want my son to be free from the government and get married so he can have a family.
I inherited my father’s loan after he passed away. I started working when I was 15, paid off my father’s loan when I was 20 and now I’m 35 years old. My current debt is around 60,000 rupees. My life is hectic, I go to work at 6am and don’t get home until late at night. I work everyday except two months during the year. The loans I took were to build a bigger house. I’ve worked for about 7 other people over the span of 4 years to pay off numerous debts. I’m confident that I’ll pay off my current debt to the landlord by this upcoming season. Each time I’ve paid off my debts and end my term the landlords get angry, wondering why I don’t continue to work for them. I must continue to find new ways to get money. Doing daily wages does not take care of my family. All of the agreements that I’ve made to work have been verbal. They’re based on trust and the landlord and I don’t ever sign an official document. I know they get signatures in other villages because my brother had to do it. Since I’ve been in this village for a while I know all the people here. We’ve built trust with the people around us.
My landlord now is a nice guy. He calls me by my name. Nothing is wrong with him. He’ll give me money if I have nothing to pay off. But when there are emergencies he’ll give me money to take care of my health and my family. Those monies go to a separate account sheet that the landlord keeps track of. I earn 200 rupees a day to work at the same landlord’s farm everyday. He demands that I cannot leave. There are other workers on the farm, about 10 a day. No one had lodged a complaint because we’re all very happy.1 The landlord treats us well even though I have taken his money and am still paying it back. He continues to treat me like a servant but that’s ok. He’ll offer me coffee and tea that I take outside of the house. I drink out of a steel cup, different from the ones that are inside of the house. The landlord hardly scolds me. He won’t scold me when I’m sick or have to take care of my children. he only gets mad when he finds out that I need to go out to do work for another person.
About 10 years ago some people came and told me and bonded laborers that we didn’t have to do these jobs anymore. They said we can get out of bonded labor telling us that they could get us trusts and accounts so we could start making money for ourselves and families. Nothing ended up happening. There’s a man in another village named Shiveresh who is trying to end bonded labor. He believes that we shouldn’t have it anymore and is beginning to release bonded laborers one by one.
At the end of the day my future depends on God. There’s no guarantee in life and so we must treat everyone good.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)