In July 2019, a viral photo showed a 60-year-old man with his knees and hands on the barren ground, in front of four people. A bonded labourer, the man was expressing his gratitude to the Tamil Nadu state officials who had rescued him.
The moving, yet heartbreaking photo offers a small glimmer of hope for victims of the exploitative and abusive system. Yet it also belies the truth — bonded labour is a reality even in 2020, with no evidence to show the problem abating.
Photo courtesy Rescued Bonded Labourers Association
Though bonded labour was outlawed in 1976 when the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act came into force and news of rescues are fairly common, convictions are few, and so are deterrents.
States with the highest number of bonded labourers rescued from till 2019. Source
This stands even for states that have a high incidence of bonded labour, such as Karnataka.
In 2013, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act introduced sections 370 and 370A into the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalised anyone involved in the process of trafficking someone — including recruiting, transporting and transfers, by any means.
But despite the laws in place, it remains an issue entrenched in society.
So why does this form of modern-day slavery continue to be a prevalent and recurring practice?
A lack of follow-through
In March 2017, a brick kiln owner in Karnataka was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and fined Rs 16,000 for enforcing bonded labour by an Additional Sessions Court in Ramanagara. It was a rare victory, as it was reportedly the first in Karnataka where an owner had been convicted under Section 370 of the IPC, which prohibits human trafficking.
The conviction was secured in large part because an inquiry was initiated immediately after the 12 bonded labourers were rescued, a complaint letter was drafted without delay and witness statements were recorded promptly.
“The prosecutor also took an interest in the case,” says Prathima, Associate Director at International Justice Mission (IJM), an organisation working in Karnataka against bonded labour, noting that IJM also assisted in the case.
It was a combination of all these factors that helped make an airtight case. However, this doesn’t always happen.
Global Concerns India Director Brinda Adige says that from the moment a case is registered, section 370 must be applied. “It doesn’t just apply to people who transport and recruit victims for exploitation, but also to anybody who harbours these people, which the employer does. Applying IPC section 370 makes for a stronger case, but sometimes, officials refuse to accept the letter of the law and argue the situation as migration,” she says.
Further, soon after the rescue, the police need to register an FIR, and the Social Welfare Department has to be involved, but this often gets delayed.
When bonded labourers are identified in a particular place, everything takes place very smoothly till the rescue is complete, says former Karnataka Public Prosecutor and lawyer BT Venkatesh. After this, he says there is negligence on the part of all stakeholders.
Rescue isn’t just about releasing them from the place of bonded labour, but also ensuring their livelihood, he says.
“NGOs don’t have the resources to see the protection of the labourers, the police have no business protecting the accused because their job is to register the case. The state Welfare Department working on this has bureaucratic issues and they have no time to ensure safety. So, the bonded labourer remains a bonded labourer,” says Venkatesh.
“A large number of cases end in acquittal because there is no bonded labourer coming and deposing against the accused. Hardly any appeals are filed in the High Court in these cases. The matter ends in the magistrate court and it is buried there,” he adds.
Due to this, he argues, bonded labour is merely transferred, not alleviated.
Why convictions are rare
The Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers has been in place since 1978 to rehabilitate those rescued. As part of this scheme, adult male rescuees are entitled to the financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh, while those who come under special categories, such as women and children are entitled to Rs 2 lakh. Others who are rescued from forced or bonded labour from more extreme conditions like sexual exploitation, brothels, or trafficking, as deemed by the District Magistrate, are eligible for financial assistance of Rs 3 lakh, as well as some non-cash assistance from state governments.
This financial assistance is funded by the Centre, but comes only after conviction. This, activists stress, is rare.
“Cases have been pending for the last five, even seven years. They haven’t moved forward. They reach a certain stage where if the accused comes, then court is not in session; if the court is in session, then the victim hasn’t been called. And if both the accused and the victim are there, then the investigating police officer or the labour inspector is absent,” an activist who doesn’t want to be named, explains.
A person who is rescued is eligible to Rs 20,000 as immediate assistance from the District Administration, regardless of conviction.
BT Venkatesh explains that in these cases, it’s often difficult to track down those rescued once they have sent back to their native place.
“For example, if somebody has come from Bihar, the family is taken care of and they are given some relief. They are then put on a train and sent back to their native places. The witnesses who were there are gone. The police have filed the chargesheet, the case commences, and these witnesses are not traceable,” he says. This is why a number of cases end in acquittal, he adds.
Prathima for IJM also highlights this — that people who are rescued could be nomadic. “They may not stay in the same place. Therefore, statements need to be taken in a timely manner and police officials in the case also need to keep in touch with them.”
How bureaucracy and red tape impede rehabilitation
Apart from the immediate assistance, rescuees are also entitled to a state-issued rescue certificate (RC), which makes them eligible for the rehabilitation measures.
In some cases, however, activists say the RC may be delayed or may not be given. This is possible for two reasons — either because the police may not want to add to the state’s numbers of bonded labour cases or because they may not be convinced that it is bonded labour.
“The RC is very important because without it, the person becomes vulnerable to being exploited again. The employer can simply claim that the labourer still owes him money, and compel them to work again. The RC ensures that this debt is waived off, and the person is eligible for rehabilitation measures,” a social worker tells TNM on the condition of anonymity.
Prathima says that in her experience, however, there are often more issues with people receiving their immediate assistance than the RC. “The reasons could be because the money has to be released by certain departments, or some other procedural delays. But when a person is socio-economically disadvantaged, and has not even been paid for the months or years of labour they have put in, that Rs 20,000 is very important to kickstart their lives again,” Prathima says.
Prathima points out that when it comes to rehabilitation, people need both economic and psychological rehabilitation. “Alternative employment doesn’t just need to be made available, but also accessible.”
But possibly one of the primary deterrents for low conviction rates — the influence of powerful employers.
Former Karnataka Labour Commissioner Lukose says that during one of the rescues he had done during his tenure as Labour Commissioner, those who were holding bonded labour would scoff at them. “They said, 'What can you guys do? We have influence, we have the money, we have seen a number of threats from the Labour Department, you have no teeth,” he says.
“Today, increasingly, the clout of the political masters have assumed a greater proportion of influence and effect. So even if you try to book them, the political masters ring up the police to water down the charges,” he adds.
Traffickers often function with such impunity, with few deterrents.
“If an offender is not deterred, they are encouraged to repeat the crime. Timely justice sends a message to other employers as well. The same goes for traffickers,” Prathima says. “And more than severity, it is about the surety of punishment that acts as a deterrent. I’d say that deterrence is as important as rescue and rehabilitation, if not more,” she adds.
On the other hand, Lukose Vallatharai says that a deterrent would only be if the trafficker is put behind bars and his bail conditions are such that he will not repeat such a thing. However, he says that the reality is that they apologise and reach a compromise, so many cases don’t even come to light.
However, trafficking is an organised crime. Unless the trafficker in the home state or district of the bonded workers is apprehended, they will continue finding new victims to exploit. “The traffickers also need to be held accountable. But the organisation and communication between police in different states could be more,” Prathima says.
Prathima adds that there is a need for awareness and capacity building as well. “People’s perception of bonded labour needs to change. It is not just bondage if a person is chained and met with physical violence. Not being given proper wages, restricting movement, and bondage that happens due to caste obligations is also bonded labour.”
“Effective functioning of the justice system, sensitivity, deterrence, timely resolution of cases, and protection and rehabilitation of survivors is needed. Without even a single one of these, bonded labour cannot be eradicated,” Prathima says.
The chains that bind
When a person borrows money, usually for circumstances beyond their control, they are bound to the lender. But if that person agrees to pay the lender by mortgaging their services, it is termed bonded labour, according to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.
Services of the debtor, and possibly that of his family, are mortgaged for a specified or unspecified period of time, and with or without nominal wages. They are often denied the ability to look for alternative employment and their freedom of movement is restricted.
But crucially, the creditor often extracts and extorts much more labour than the fair value of credit they provided, often in the name of compound interest.
While modern-day slavery may not bind someone in literal chains, social structures and conventions bind them in metaphorical ones.
Prathima says that this social disadvantage brings with it a lot of fear. “At the employer’s facility, there are other tactics to break their will. They are beaten, threatened. Movement is restricted. Employers do not allow the whole family to take a trip to the market or outside together,” she explains.
Caste is also an important factor in this equation — where offenders are often from the dominant caste and the trafficked from a marginalised caste, and societal structures and caste dominance comes into play.
Language is another barrier to seeking help, as they are brought from another state. The labourers are wary of approaching the police as well as being found and assaulted by the employer.
Vulnerability of the poor
One of the reasons bonded labour continues to ensnare so many in India is because of poverty, with many often taking up these jobs out of vulnerability.
Lukose says the root of the problem is developmental, and not just structural.
“They get into a vicious cycle of poverty, where they lack education, inability to educate children, early marriage, and poor health and nutrition. They end up being tied to someone who can give them the assurance of something for the money they borrow, and sometimes, they have to necessarily borrow for certain kinds of expenditure which is beyond them — marriage, death, fighting illness,” he says.
He cites the example of the poverty line, which says that anyone who earns Rs 32 per day in rural India and Rs 47 per day in urban India is above the poverty line. Lukose says that our concept of the poverty line is based on the assumption that the poor will be given subsidised services — free healthcare, free education, free housing, free ration, etc.
“Their income is something that makes them borrow from people. And if you tie yourself to a borrower without any freedom of movement in terms of seeking employment, then you get into the trap,” he says.