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.
Ram became a bonded labourer after taking out a loan of 30,000 rupees. Ram speaks of the caste system and how landlords do not want to abolish bonded labour, despite them paying their labourers less and less and giving out smaller loans. Ram has been able to pay off most of his debt and now works as a daily wageworker to pay off the rest.
I am 45 years old, and I still have energy. I need my energy so I can give food education to my children. I am married with two sons and one daughter, they are 11 and my two sons are 8 and 6 years old. They are all in school, the youngest is at a nursery that is run by the government of India. I didn’t get an education because I wanted to work in order to earn food, our elders think this way too. I was in bonded labor but now do daily works.1 My father was a bonded labor and did jobs here and there. When you have a family there are a lot of expenditures and as a result we get some debt. I took my first debt 20 years ago for 30,000 rupees. I have paid a good portion of my debt but there still some remaining. I have about 15,000 left to pay off. My grazing sheep and goats allowed me to pay off 3,000 rupees, but there was a period of 10 years where I was not able to pay off any of my debt. I was able to pay off parts of my debt before I was married. Being married increases my expenses. The debt I owe is to one landlord, I also go to other landlords to find work when I need it. My landlord does not get mad when I go to other places to find work.2 He understands that I need to pay off my expenses.
People in my community will call their masters uncle or mama, we use affection when talking since we have relationships with them. My father called his master uncle. My current master is older than me so I call him uncle, but if he were younger I would call him by his name. He is in the bovie caste and I am part of the goola community.3 In the olden days our caste would do herding and farming, now we go for daily works. I do not feel that I am an influential person. I don’t know who has power in my area, I don’t think about these kinds of things. I only vote in elections on a national level and vote for whoever people tell me to vote for. I know people from our caste and others who have stood for an election. In our community no landlord wishes to get rid of bonded labor. Landlords do not think getting repaid is not as important as making sure that there are laborers working on their property. Bonded laborers also have to be away from their families for long periods of time since they are always in the fields. I do not think this will last. Landlords are paying their laborers less and less yet landlords expect them to work on their property. Laborers demand more money but don’t get it. So, I don’t think this will stay. Landlords are starting to now only give out small loans, like around 5,000 rupees. Yet they still make the laborers work on demand throughout the seasons. People don’t want to work as a bonded laborer anymore for these reasons.
My grandfather had 20 acres or so of land and he distributed it amongst him and his 3 brothers. At the end all of them sold their land. Economically, I am doing better than my father. In his time the wages for bonded laborers were really low and life was not good. I think that the way landlords have treated their bonded laborers have remained the same, even till today. Landlords respect their laborers even if their debts get larger and they continue to ask for money. Sometimes landlords will try to demand laborers for their money. Once my landlord did that but I explained my position to him and as a result he stopped asking me. Back then there was no talks for compromise, now landlords and laborers find ways to talk and create low interest amounts. My interest rate is about 2 to 3 percent. I work equally as a bonded laborer and daily wageworker. If I ever refuse to pay my landlord he will tell me to go to the last place that I worked and pay him with the money that I earned there.
Things are different with my landlord. I take tea in his house, with the cups that my landlord uses. Sometimes I have to refuse to go to work for my landlord because I have already committed to other work for that day. When I tell my landlord he just says to come back to him tomorrow. If I am free I will go to his house and tell my landlord that I will work in the field so you can go and take a rest. My landlord also had to work his way up and once had to work on his own. He understands what the conditions of laborers are.4 My master treats my family and me good and understands us. He is different than the other landlords. We never really have any conflicts, just small problems here and there. Things are peaceful here, things are dealt with in a quiet and internal manner.
Currently as a daily wageworker I make 150 rupees when I go out for work. I work around 4 to 5 days out of the week. In a month I make anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 rupees. It is just enough for me to pay for my family’s expenditures, but we actually would need around 6,000 rupees. Our wages go up only during seasons where the demands are high. I stopped doing bonded labor 15 years ago. I worked for the same landlord when I didn’t have debt, when I was a bonded laborer, and now for daily wages. He has remained the same throughout all three of these situations. I know I still have to repay the rest of my debt. I have to repay what I owe. Paying off my debt gives me satisfaction and happiness.
I will continue to work hard and hopefully in the next five years I can uplift my family. I will save money for our bank accounts. Maybe one our children will get into government departments or jobs. I want my children to continue to get better education. I pray everyday to our family god.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)