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.
Uday became a bonded labourer after taking up his father’s loan. Uday tells of the process of borrowing money from a landlord and of the caste dynamics between landlord and bonded labourer.
My master gives me his phone number, that’s normally what will happen. You can take his number if you want to call him. My father lived in a different city than the one we’re in now. I live here because this is where I got married and settled down. Two of my daughters are married but my two younger sons are not married yet. I’ve been working as a laborer since I was 12 years old. I don’t have any ideas about education and we don’t really have any food to eat. My father did not go to school either. My father and I didn’t do agriculture work we cut trees and sometimes do construction work where we mix cement. I leave at 4:00 am to start daily labor. I work one week out of the month. I make sure to work because when I need food I have to lie to my landlord and tell him that I’m sick or have a stomach ache.
My caste is SC/ST, my father never owned any land so we always had to work. I don’t know about any bonded labor laws but I don’t think they would work. Whenever there’s a law about one person benefitting in particular people deal with it themselves. There are these middle men in politics who always go around trying to get fake signatures and reach us on our phones. In politics farmers and landlords are not treated the same. My landlord tries to vote with intention so when he does that the politicians come and talk to him. These politicians will tell the master to leave the laborers. That ruins all of the work they were trying to do. Politicians do take money and deceive people. Landlords make money off of their laborers so they never try to deceive their workers. I make sure to vote in national and local elections. I don’t favor a political party because they come to our villages promising goats and sheep but never return with anything.
My master used to have more bonded laborers but now it’s just me. I started working for my current master when I was 18 years old. I’ve worked under several masters since then. I had five brothers and five sisters when I started working. There was no way for me to survive without going out for bonded labor. I was the second brother. I started bonded labor because my father had me take up his loan. I took cattle and buffalo out for grazing. I was paid 5 rupees per cattle per year. My father’s loan was for 150 rupees over the course of 6 years. After I had worked the 6 years my landlord made some sort of false calculation and compelled me to work for another year but I refused. I told my father and so him and the elders gathered surrounding people to get justice. They calculated it and told him that I had done my bonded labor and that I even did three months extra. They tried to come to an agreement but ended up just dismissing it.
When bonded laborers approach a landlord for money he doesn’t just simply give it. He will get a one stamp paper and will write an agreement. He writes everything and says that I can find anyone who knows how to read or write to see the agreement. Both the laborer and the landlord are supposed to sign it. In the process they also make two copies, one is for landlord and one for the laborer, the master doesn’t sign either paper. Sometimes I will ask for a third copy for someone else to have as a witness. My second master didn’t ask me for any promissory note, he just had a notebook where he would write how much I had given him and the debt I still owed. He gave me 250 rupees per year as well as whatever I needed such as clothes, food and everything else. I worked a total of 6 years for him. Each year the amount I got increased 100 rupees. If I work hard for my master and remain committed, he will pay me more wages. But if I work hard and he doesn’t, I will go to find other work with landlords who know how hard I work and are willing to pay more.
I did not sign any sort of contract with my current landlord. I used to take debts not on the basis of a promissory note. No one opens that story anymore. It’s been so long and that system has been eradicated. No one can force somebody to work, but it’s surprising that this is all gone. been 12 years since I started working for this landlord. Whenever I need money he will give it to me, but he does not pay daily wages. Once a year he will give 2 to 3,000 rupees, but nothing more than that. Whenever my landlord asks me to work, I work. If he doesn’t call me I go to work somewhere else. I must make all of the important decisions in my life but God decides everything and we cannot know it all. I must continually work in order to get food. When the work is there, we go to work on all that needs to be done.
We don’t have land, we don’t have a borewell and we don’t have money to invest. If my father or grandfather were wealthy my life would have been better. But who knows what will happen. In another 10 years I know I won’t be able to perform any heavy duty work so I’ll have to do some sweeping here and there. How can I expect things to get better if we don’t have land or those kinds of things? I would like to remain with my current master and take food and other little amounts here and there when I need it.
I never went into any of my master’s homes to take tea or water. From a middle age I never did that. I have restricted my brain and my heart. God hasn’t given me the mind to want to go into landlord’s homes to take those things. Entering into the home of an upper caste is a crime to the government. We are lower caste you know, they don’t allow us to enter. Landlords feel an aversion towards us because bonded labors eat like buffalos, cows, and sheep. We eat like all these things so the landlord will say “don’t enter into my house”. That kind of stuff doesn’t make me angry. If I get angry people may think of me as a rude fellow, someone that is not good.
I haven’t registered anything about bonded labor but I do have a BPL card. Nowadays everyone can drink tea with common glasses and go into hotels. There may be laws on the government side against bonded labor but there is no law on the side of society. In society nowadays there are tons of things going on, no one is even called by their caste.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)