Sumangali Scheme: When marriage assistance becomes bonded labour in disguise

The Tamil Nadu government has denied allegations of bonded labour practices in the textile mills.
Sumangali Scheme: When marriage assistance becomes bonded labour in disguise
Sumangali Scheme: When marriage assistance becomes bonded labour in disguise
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By R Rochin Chandra

It’s barely surprising that the Tamil Nadu government responded furiously to a DMK legislator’s comment alleging “severe exploitation of women workers by the textile mills under Sumangali Scheme” arguing that the scheme was no more in practice and there were no bonded labourers in the state. Nevertheless, what’s really surprising and warrants a close scrutiny are the grounds on which Textile Minister, OS Manian denied these allegations in August this year.

Sumangali scheme explained

The Sumangali scheme, which is a form of forced labour in India, is said to have started in 1989. The word “Sumangali” in Tamil means an unmarried girl becoming a respectable woman by entering into marriage. Thus, the scheme is also known as “marriage assistance system”. Despite dowry being illegal in India, a number of families continue the tradition of the bride’s parents providing the groom’s family with substantial money. 

Under the Sumangali scheme, girls’ parents, usually poor and from the lower castes, are persuaded by brokers to sign up their daughter(s) to be employed at a garment and textile factories. The scheme promises a bulk of money after the completion of a three-year contract working in the factory. It ostensibly meets the need of poor families while providing a stable workforce to factories in Coimbatore. 

Despite Mr Mannian arguing that the scheme was no longer in practice, latest research findings by District Monitoring Committees suggests that the Sumangali scheme is still prevalent in Tamil Nadu.

Reverse bondage?

Mr Manian also contended that young girls employed under the Sumangali scheme do not qualify to be bonded labourers (kothadimai), for “kothadimai” meant those whose movement were restricted and were cut off from contacting the outer world. He also added that Sumangali workers, unlike bonded labourers, enjoyed the freedom of movement and were able to make calls to their relatives.

As such, these arguments might sound perfectly cogent to a layman, but for researchers and several NGOs, who have previously investigated the characteristic of this notorious practice, this proposition would be far more provocative than compelling.

Freedom of movement or mobility rights is a fundamental human rights concept. It does not connote merely the rights of individuals to move freely within a country or to leave the country and return to it. It has much wider meaning which includes liberty over restriction, choices over control and freedom over confinement. Unfortunately, many, if not most, of these rights have no significance in the lives of Sumangali workers, as these girls, under no circumstances are allowed by the mill management to move freely outside the hostel premises during non-working hours. The condition of affairs in hostel are even more terrible on holidays, where the women workers are coerced to do gardening, cleaning hostel rooms, toilets, etc. In addition, the instances of locking these women workers in bathroom or separate dark basement during the audits are fairly common in the mills -  imprisonment of sorts. Therefore, on carefully examining these facts against the legal connotation of freedom of movement, Mr Manian’s contention, however, could be strongly challenged and deemed unreasonable.

Turning to the issue of bonded labourers, it is fairly indisputable that due to existing legal standards under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, there appears no scope for Sumangali workers to attain the status of bonded labourers in the eyes of legislators. More precisely, despite fulfilling all the basic requirements of the law, including absence of freedom of movement, forfeiture of freedom to one’s employment, denial to relinquish one’s employment, non-payment of minimum wages, the Sumangali Scheme falls short to establish one of the vital components of typical bonded labour system: an advance payment. In other words, Sumangali Scheme does not involve the basic creditor –debtor relationship, where workers are required to render forced labour until the repayment of debt. Indeed, parents are being paid a small token amount to buy the girls for work in textile mills but the same is incompatible or cannot be read harmoniously with the legal foundation of ‘bonded debt’ in the Act.

Notwithstanding what is contained in the law, it however, cannot be denied that Sumangali Scheme has features similar to reverse bondage debt, wherein the women workers are being forced to labour until the completion of their three-years contract to avail the promised lump sum of Rs. 40,000 – 50,000. Here, this force must be construed as social compulsion, owing to which they are bound to forfeit their freedom of movement as well as employment. It appears that Mr Manian not only chose the wrong line of argument to dismiss the allegations of bonded labourers in the state but is also vaguely familiar with the features of Sumangali Scheme and the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976 in toto.

Amending the Employment Act would be a good idea?

Amending the central as well as the state legislations could only be a temporary solution to this problem; it may not comprehensively address the wide array of illegal features involved in the Sumangali Scheme.

Regrettably, as of now, Sumangali workers seek legal protection under number of central Acts, including but not limited to Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, POCSO Act, 2012, Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, Minimum Wages Act, 1948 & Factories Act, 1948 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, etc. This is typically because of the absence of an independent act that accounts for holistic violations of human rights, notably sexual violence, forced labour, child labour and non-payment of minimum wages, etc. Moreover, it is worth noting that all these acts merely protect the rights of a particular group of people like labors, children and Scheduled Castes, while it addresses a specific problem which, however, may not be equally consistent with the nature of criminal, labour and civil cases.

If the state government really intends to regulate the practice of the camp coolie system (Sumangali Scheme) in textile mills, it should probably think of constituting a Special Act to deal with this problem. Moreover, it is appropriately justifiable because this problem is fairly unique to Tamil Nadu. And, when there are special acts to safeguard and cater to the needs of street vendors, manual scavengers, senior citizens and women, then why not an act to deal exclusively with Sumangali scheme form. That way, the women workers would at least be spared from filing complaints under secondary laws and avail speedy redressal.

What should be the form and content of the law?

As far as I am concerned, the act should lay a firm emphasis on the following aspects viz., a) rehabilitation; b) speedy trial measures; c) and developing tribunals across the state, aside from defining clearly as to what is Sumangali scheme, who are the apprentices in the scheme, what should be their minimum age at the time of recruitment, their working hours, and remuneration, what amounts to crime, who are liable for punishments, the quantum of punishments for the wrong doers, who should Sumangali workers approach for support, the roles of victim advocates, police officers, presiding judges and vigilance committees, the support services available for victims, and other miscellaneous mandates  etc. Also, the act need not be very lengthy; mere 30 sections, neatly divided under four, if not five chapters, would make a good act.

With regard to rehabilitation, the act may draw the positives from SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Manual Scavengers Rehabilitation Act, 2013. In this note, rehabilitation should not merely include financial assistance but also medical services to immediately treat/handle cases of accidents in mills and counseling to restore the psychological condition of the victims prior to the incident. Compensation could be disbursed in three stages. One: at time of filing the FIR, two: during the drafting of chargesheet, and three: when the court pronounces the final order. Compensation may be in the range of Rs 50,000 to 5 lakhs. Cases amounting to murder of women workers during their period on mill could be compensated by providing a government job to one of the family members as a substitute. Additionally, government can ensure rehabilitation of victims by offering them interest free loans, sewing machines or perhaps by launching a free goat-cow scheme to help them venture into dairy farming enterprise.

Again, the inordinate delay in distribution of justice is a pertinent issue that causes profound psychological and emotional distress to young Sumangali workers. To address this effectively, the act must ensure speedy trial to the victim. Instituting local tribunals in every district of Tamil Nadu may help achieve this end. In doing so, the women workers will also be extricated from the legal obligation to fight the case at the place of occurrence of accident i.e., at the site of the mills. Accordingly, the act can accelerate the court processes, by adding a provision that mandates disposing of the cases within 30 days.

(R Rochin Chandra is presently a Research Scholar in Criminology at the Institute of Research and Development & Department of Criminology, Raksha Shakti University, Ahmedabad. He previously worked for Rajasthan Prisons Department in the capacity of Policy Analyst. He also serves as an editorial assistant of the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences and the International Journal of Cyber Criminology.)

Note: These are the personal views of the author.

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