PUCL Bulletin, Dec., 1981

New Delhi

Seminar on Bonded Labour

Bonded labour which includes beggar and immoral traffic in women [as defined by Art 23(1) of Indian Cons-titution], till independence of the country was regarded as vestige of feudal culture. Even after independence the state machinery and public awareness has remained inert to the lot of these depressed people. The singular action taken by the state came in the form of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act of, 1976. Yet, six years after that even by the government's own admission, as stated in the Labour Ministry report of 1980-81, 6,21,619 bonded labourers have been identified and only 3,707 of them freed and rehabilitated.

In order to find out the causes, types, present condition of bonded and freed labourers, difficulties in the struggle for the freedom of bonded labourers, and role of volun-tary organisations, the 'Forum for the Freedom of Bonded Labour' had organised a two-day seminar on December 5 and 6 at New Delhi.

The important fact which came up before the con-ference was that bonded labour is not found only in lesser developed regions alone, but also at those places, which have enjoyed the fruits of green revolution like Punjab and Haryana. The employers are not only landlords like Dr. Jagannath Mishra of Bihar, Arjun Singh of Madhya Pradesh, but big construction magnets who built mansions in the cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, brick kiln owners of Bihar, Punjab and Haryana, the brothel runners of Delhi and Meerut, owners of tea gardens of Assam and so on.

An activist of the forum said this refutes the sham claim of the Planning Commission that with the rise of national income the lot of the poor has improved". Swami Agnivesh, convenor of the forum, refuted the government's claim that the bonded labourers are found only in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, U.P., M.P. and Kerala. He said "even a cursory survey will show that bonded labour exists in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Delhi, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh also". Referring to the attitude of Haryana Government Swami Agnivesh said that the the government refused to accept existence of any such practice in the state initially but confessed only after he bad moved the writ petition in the Haryana High Court.

Starvation in tribal areas of Bihar, because of the takeover of forest by the government and lack of emp-loyment opportunities and cultivable land are the causes of bonded labour. Indebtedness is another cause. Econo-mic stagnation leading to lack of employment prospects has improved the relative strength of the employers.

The employer knows fully well that his employees have no option other than death and bondage. Usually the poor men choose the later, hence the vestige of feudal system is assuming day by day cruel dimensions. It is obvious from a case of one landlord of Simra village in Bihar who goes to the extent of urinating in the mouth of his halis (as bonded labourers are called in Bihar). Lathaits and gumashtas (local toughs) are patronized by landlords to intimidate and even kill the labourers who ask for their wages.

Labourers are compelled to sell themselves to the agents of brick kiln owners or construction companies. In Orissa, a dadan (bonded labour) mortgages his life to the employer and has no right to change the employer. Narrating a case from Ratlam one participant said that the employers are well organized with hired hoodloom, to stifle the voice of these bonded labourers.
The employers confer with each other and do not allow the employees to change masters. The women of Jansur and Babar willingly go to prostitution centres in Delhi and Meerut in order to free their husbands from debts.

The Bonded Labour Abolition Act was passed in 1976, but a few conscientious officers who tried to imple-ment the, Act were harrassed and humiliated.

Swami Agnivesh gave a list of labour commissioners and contractors who were harassed or transferred because of their active involvement in freeing the bonded labourers.
Even the picture of those rehabilitated is dismaying. Lands given to them in presence of the chief guests have been taken away. He suggested that the forum should review the rehabilitation schemes of the government and voluntary agencies. The government should consti-tute vigilance committees at district and sub-divisional levels for the identification of the bonded labourers. A fund should be raised by the forum for providing relief to the bonded labourers.

-- Jaikishen

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