The number of bonded labourers forced to work inhumane hours in brick kilns and fields in Tamil Nadu currently remains an unquantifiable figure. However, with the Labour Department now getting set to conduct a statewide survey after a gap of two decades, this problem may soon be addressed.
The survey will be conducted as per the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers (2016). It includes the need for a survey to identify bonded labourers, rescue them and aid in policy decision. The amount of assistance for the survey of bonded labourers, according to the scheme, will be Rs.4.5 lakh per district. While the state government is expected to initially fund the project, the union government will share half the cost, upon satisfactory performance in the identification project.
Speaking to TNM, PM Saravanan, Additional Commissioner of the Labour Department, says, "Initially, we will be conducting the survey in 11 districts which have a high occurrence of bonded labour incidents."
And while the districts are not finalised, he says this is likely to include Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Vellore and Thanjavur. It would cost the government Rs.49.5 lakh to carry out this survey.
"This is aimed at developing policies that will aid the rehabilitation of victims of bonded labour. Tamil Nadu already has a robust system in terms of rehabilitation of rescued labourers. This will further boost our knowledge of the conditions on the ground. It will also look at permanent solutions to stop rescued persons from entering bonded labour again," he adds.
Non-governmental organisation working to rescue bonded labourers, including International Justice Mission (IJM), while lauding the move, have also shared their opinion on the matter.
"We need to look at evolving nature of bonded labour and take into consideration different forms of employment that do not fall under the traditional definition of bonded labour," says Sharon Jabez of IJM. "The initial Act for abolishing bonded labour was made with an agrarian economy in mind. So the questionnaire being presented in current times needs to delve further into various forms of employment," she adds.
The Additional Commissioner, however, assures that this will be looked into.
"We are also including questions on working hours and minimum wages, so as to gain a holistic perspective," he says.
The Labour Department will also simultaneously be conducting rescues when any form of bonded labour is identified.
"We are merely waiting for funds to be released to start the survey," says the Additional Commissioner.
In 1996, when the survey was last conducted, 25,000 bonded labourers had been discovered in Tamil Nadu. When asked about the large gap between surveys, the labour department claims the subject was not under their purview till 2016.