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FOCUS June 2018 Volume 92

Bonded Labor in India: Persistent and Difficult

Human Rights Law Network

Bonded labor is a traditional labor system widely practiced in India that was abolished by law in 1976.  The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 19761 declared that “every bonded labourer shall … stand freed and discharged from any obligation to render any bonded labour.” (Article 4, Chapter II) 

Bonded labor is defined as "service arising out of loan/debt/advance," in which the debtor undertakes to mortagage his services or the servised of any of his family members to the creditor for a specified or unspecified period with or without wages accompanied by denial of choice of alternative avenues  of  employment,  or  [denial of] freedom  of  [movement]2.

The freedom of the bonded laborer under the 1976 law means extinguishment of liability to repay bonded debt, non-eviction from “homesteads or other residential premises which he was occupying as part of consideration” for the bonded labor, provision of rehabilitation grant, and provision of government support for rehabilitation3

The law also declared void and inoperative “any  custom  or  tradition  or  any  contract,  agreement  or  other  instrument  (whether  entered  into  or  executed  before  or after  the  commencement  of  this  Act),  by  virtue  of  which  any person, or any member of the family or dependant of such person, is required to do any work or render any service as a bonded labourer.” (Article 5, Chapter II)

The law has penal provisions for its violation (“imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also with a fine which may extend to two thousand rupees”). (Article 16, Chapter XVI)

It obliges both state and union governments to take measures to free the bonded laborers and support their rehabilitation. The state government is obliged to “confer  such  powers  and  impose  such  duties  on  a  District Magistrate as may be necessary to ensure that  the provisions  of this  Act are properly carried out and the District  Magistrate may  specify the officer, subordinate to  him,  who  shall  exercise  all  or  any  of  the  powers,  and  perform  all  or  any  of  the  duties,    so  conferred  or  imposed  and  the  local  limits  within  which  such  powers or duties  shall  be  carried  out by  the  officer  so specified.” (Article 10, Chapter IV) 

The District Magistrate and officers authorized by him shall inquire on the existence of any bonded labor system and take immediate action to extinguish it, and “promote the welfare of the freed bonded labourer by securing and protecting the economic interests of such bonded labourer so that he may not have any occasion or reason to contract any further bonded debt.” (Article 11, Chapter IV)

The law has important provisions on extinguishing the bonded labor system and rehabilitating the victims of the system. More than forty years later, however, the bonded labor system has remained part of traditional industries in India including brick kiln factories. Rescue of bonded laborers continues to occur every now and then.

Raj Kumara Sahoo and Bonded Laborers of Jammu-Kashmir4
Raj Kumari Sahoo and Niranjan Sahoo married in 2010 and lived together in Jammu while working as bonder laborers in a brick kiln factory. Raj Kumari and Niranjan were kept in captivity as bonded workers in the brick kiln factory for two and half years, while Niranjan’s “entire family had served as a bonded labour for 10 years” in Jammu. 

On 16 June 2012, when they told the owner of the factory of their intention to go home to Chattisgarh the contractor demanded the payment of “three lakhs rupees [300,000 rupees, almost 4,500 US dollars]” and beat them up. Niranjan ran away to seek help. The contractor forced Raj Kumari to go to the house of her son-in-law and later to her house where she was repeatedly raped. She was pregnant at that time. She was beaten up after the rape, causing her to have a miscarriage three days later. 

Niranjan reported to the police the physical abuse suffered by Raj Kumari and his son while they were held captive by the contractor. Initial visit by the police (and staff of Child Line, Jammu) at the house of the contractor found Raj Kumari refusing to leave the house and even told them that she went to the place on her own free will. The police raided the house on 17 August 2012 and succeeded in taking her and her son to Neha Ghar, a rehabilitation home under the supervision of the Juvenile Welfare Board. With the help of counseling by Child Line, Jammu, Raj Kumari subsequently told the police that she was threatened by the contractor and her principal employer, her husband was also beaten up and fled Jammu afterward, and she wanted to join her husband.

Raj Kumari filed a first information report (FIR) with the police in New Delhi on 27 August 2012 on the abuse she suffered but was refused.  

On 2 September 2012, fifty one bonded laborers were found by the police being transported to an unidentified place and pointed to the contractor and the owner of a brick kiln factory of abusing them as bonded labor. The office of the District Magistrate, Jammu, ordered their freedom and instructed the police to file a case against the contractor and brick kiln factory owner for violating the law.

Along with Swami Agnivesh of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front), she filed with the Supreme Court of India on ----2012 a criminal writ petition against the State of Jammu-Kashmir and the Union of India under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. They pleaded for the “issuance of a writ of mandamus or any other writ, order or directions for conducting an investigation into the case of bonded labour, physical and sexual abuse.” The petition also asked for an order to investigate any other cases of bonded labor in Jammu-Kashmir and for the release and rehabilitation of bonded laborers.

The petition included the allegation that bonded labor had not been addressed by the state and union governments, and support for those who had been liberated from bonded labor had not been provided to many of them.

They asked the court to order both state and union governments to fully implement the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 as amended.

Persistent Traditional Labor Exploitation System
Eliminating the bonded labor system in India, a very old tradition of labor exploitation, has been very difficult. 

The government of India reportedly announced in 2016 a plan to rescue and help all bonded laborers by 2030. However, full compensation to the victims of bonded labor can only be obtained after a criminal conviction of the exploiter. At the current slow and low conviction rate, the supposed millions of bonded laborers of India have less hope of gaining support after gaining freedom from bonded labor.  

As one report states:5

Lawyers attribute the low rates of reporting, prosecution and conviction [of bonded labor exploiters] to a lack of awareness of the bonded labour law and policies on rehabilitation, as well as a poorly resourced and under-funded police and judicial system.

Today, many ar still working as bonded laborers, while those freed from the system are not guaranteed of support for their rehabilitation. Without the rehabilitation, the freedom gained by former bonded laborers may not have much meaning.

This article was prepared in collaboration with Jefferson R. Plantilla of HURIGHTS OSAKA.

The Human Rights Law Network works on access to justice for marginalized individuals and communities, training in human rights law, law reform, monitoring and investigation into human rights abuse and 'know-your-rights' publications.

For more information, please contact:
Human Rights Law Network, Socio-Legal Information Center, 576, Masjid Road, Jungpura, New Delhi -110014;
ph +91-11-24374501, +91-11-24379855, fax +91-11-24374502; e-mail:contact[a]hrln.org; website:http://hrln.org/.

Endnotes 
1 Text of The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (ACT NO. 19 OF 1976) taken from www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/---sro-new_delhi/documents/genericdocument/wcms_300625.pdf.
All provisions of the law are taken from this source unless indicated otherwise.
2 CHAPTER-18 - MANUAL – 17,
https://pblabour.gov.in/Content/documents/pdf/rti/rti_chapter18.pdf.
3 CHAPTER-18 - MANUAL – 17, ibid.
4 The discussion of the case of Raj Kumari and the other bonded laborers is based on the petition filed by Raj Kumari and the Bandhua Mukti Morcha before the Supreme Court of India.
5 Thomson Reuters Foundation, “Reality of bonded labour: Long way to justice for thousands forced into slavery,” Hindustan Times, 26 January 2017,
www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/reality-of-bonded-labour-long-way-to-justice-for-thousands-forced-into-slavery/story-yFeU0xF9Bei31Jg1Zj3Q0K.html.


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