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Escape from bondage

Despite the abolition of bonded labour, the system is used to exploit the poor, writes MEENA MENON in the context of the recent cases in Madhya Pradesh.

PAUL NORONHA

A long walk to freedom.

FOR 20 years, Sukhlal, a Korku adivasi, worked in Neemgaon village in Harda district (Madhya Pradesh) as a bonded labourer. He was paid three or four kg OF wheat a day. His wife was paid Rs. 50 per month for housework and sundry chores while his 22-year-old son, Manohar, worked for another landlord in the village. In January, this year, the landlord's horse bit off Manohar's nose, while he was feeding it. "I didn't know my son was in hospital till later." says Sukhlal.

On May 29, the police and district officials rescued Sukhlal and Manohar from Neemgaon after a complaint filed by activists of Shramik Adivasi Sanghatana, which works against the exploitation of adivasis in the districts of Beitul, Khandwa and Harda. Sukhlal's was the fifth case of bonded labour that has emerged in Harda since last September. None of the families has been rehabilitated.

Now back in his native Mohaniya village in Khandwa district, Manohar hardly speaks and finds it difficult to breathe through his injured nose. Sukhlal had borrowed Rs. 10,000 from a landowner from the Bishnoi community. This later increased to Rs. 30,000. All expenses and even the money to visit his village — Rs. 50 per trip — were added to the amount he had borrowed.

He said there were many others working as bonded labourers but were afraid to speak up. Another resident of Mohaniya, Nana Bhotia whose son, Munna, is a bonded labourer in Neemgaon, says, "My son has been working there for five years. He had borrowed Rs. 6000 for a family wedding."

Shamim Meghani, state general secretary of Samajwadi Jan Parishad, and activist with Shramik Adivasi Sanghatana, recalls that the first case came as a whispered request at the end of a meeting last year. "When Channu dada (a resident of Sangwa village) asked me to release his sons, I first thought they were in jail," she says. "What I did not bargain for was that his sons were bonded labourers."

Harda district in Madhya Pradesh has a social custom called barsudiya, which is prevalent even today. Large landowners who lend labourers money, do not charge interest, but are repaid in terms of hard work on their farms. The labourers, including many Korku adivasis, and their families, live on the farm and work there for a pittance.

After Channu dada's request, the Sanghatana filed a complaint with the collector in September 2002, demanding the release of his sons, Ramkishan and Ram Singh, who were working with Chironjilal Patel in Samardha village. Meghani suspects that a case was registered only under the Minimum Wages Act against Patel who paid the two brothers Rs. 11,000 each, later, as arrears of minimum wages. She says the case must be registered under the Abolition of Bonded Labour System act, 1976, as well as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Ramkishan worked for 14 years as a bonded labourer, before he was released last September. Now back home in Sangwa, 50 km from Harda, he finds it difficult to get work. His younger brother, Ram Singh, feels he was released from jail. He says, "The collector offered us ration cards, a place to live and loans for us to start a shop or a business. It is a year now and we are still waiting."

This case inspired another villager from nearby Beed (Kadola) to register a complaint with the Sanghatana. Rukmabai and her husband, Toofan Singh, were working as bonded labourers for Madhu Bishnoi for eight years in Jhadpa village, near Harda. Two years ago, Toofan died and the loan of Rs. 10,000 was transferred to Rukma. She was rescued in April 2003, along with her two sons, Rajesh and Ganesh, but seems deeply depressed. Her younger son, Ganesh, studied in std. V at Jhadpa, but, after coming to Beed, he was not admitted to the local school as he did not have a transfer certificate. Ganesh now works on the field, doing weeding and other jobs. The landlord used to beat her elder son and force him to work after her husband's death. Now Rukma stays with her father, who filed the complaint, in Beed. No government aid has been given to her till August and she does not even get the widow's pension of Rs. 250 a month.

While the Harda collector was not available for comment, the sub-divisional magistrate, Kedar Singh, said that Rs. 20,000 would soon be paid to the released bonded labourers. It was difficult for the government to investigate and establish that there were bonded labourers as people said they were working of their own will, he explained. While the administration has released the bonded labourers in Harda, after pressure from the Sanghatana, there is little follow-up in terms of punitive action and rehabilitation.

On the contrary, the Bishnoi community has indirectly threatened Meghani with sexual assault and death and Channu dada has also been threatened for filing a complaint.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, defines bonded labour as service arising out of loan/debt/advance. Offenders can be imprisoned up to three years and fined up to Rs. 2000.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 40 million persons, including 15 million children, are bonded labourers in India. On July 15, the Supreme Court directed 11 states to give, within a month, status reports on bonded labourers to the National Human Rights Commission. The Commission, which is entrusted with rehabilitating bonded labourers, had said in its report of March 27, that Madhya Pradesh was among the States which did not file a status report along with Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh.

Justice (Retd.) P.N. Bhagwati's order in a case involving Bandhua Mukti Morcha in 1984, says that the existence of bonded labour is not a slur on the administration, rather it is the failure to take note of and to make an effort to put an end to the bonded labour system. This slur is evident in Harda and so many other places. The question is what is being done about it.

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