Bonded labor or bandhua majdoori is one among the various socio-economic evils of India. It is being practiced in our society since ancient times and unfortunately, it is still continued to be practiced in various forms.
Bonded Labour System in India
What is Bonded Labour: How it Works
Under the bonded labor system, a person is given no or nominal numeration in return for his labor. It is also known as debt-bondage. Because bonded labor is generally demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. In fact this inhuman practice has been used by exploitative Zamindars or money-lenders as a trick to avail unpaid labor.
The system of bonded labor is one of the main characteristics of the feudal hierarchical society. The system was designed to enable a few socially and economically powerful sections of society to exploit the weaker sections of the society.
The system basically works like this: poor Dalits or person of weaker section of society were always hand to mouth for their sustenance and for that purpose they would take loans from landlord or moneylender who in-turn would take this opportunity to take possession of whatever little land or movable property they find from the debtor and in return of money advanced would also bound him/her to provide his/her labor force as payment of debt. But the principal amount would never be paid by the debtor as interest on amount advanced would always be on higher side. The debtor remains indebted from generations to generations but his/her debt would never be wiped out. Thus the vicious circle of bonded labor goes on.
However the practice is not unique to India, it was being practiced in various forms in several parts of the world. It was one of the cruelest outcomes of colonialism all over the world. One of the worst forms of bonded labor all over the Colonial world was the system of Slave Trade. Under which black people mainly from African countries were sold at Plantation and Mining works in the countries of North and South America including West Indies by their European colonial masters; they were forcefully exploited for their labor and were put into inhuman conditions. This trade remained in practice for centuries and only in modern times due to sustained movements by Black people (for instance in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela) and also due to end of Colonial era their conditions somewhat changed.
One of the main reasons for the practice of Slave Trade was that the so-called people of White race had the belief of superiority over the Black people to whom they referred as Negros and did not consider them human. European powers of those times used their superior military and economic powers to exploit the labor force of black African people for their advantage.
Origin of Bonded Labour System in India
In India, bonded labor system finds its genesis in country’s peculiar socio-economic culture. Like various other social evils prevailing in India, bonded labor is also an off-shoot of our Caste-system. Mainly, it is person belonging to the so-called higher castes such as Rajpoot and Brahmins who are the exploiters and person belonging to the so-called lower castes such as Sudras who are the exploited.
Due to their weak economic and social conditions within the society, the SC/STs, Dalits are forced to sell their labors for nominal or no remuneration to the village landlord or moneylender. It’s a practice continuing from ancient times and in some parts of the country is still prevalent.
Furthermore, lack of livelihood options; large families; poor education level and lack of awareness among Dalits make their condition worse. Sometimes force or coercion is also used by powerful landlords to make bonded labor contracts.
Thus, basically it is an exploitative practice roots of which lie in vast inequalities and disparities existing in social, economic and cultural aspects of India.
Forms of Bonded Labor System in India
Most of the exploitation occurs in Farming or Agriculture Sector and it is the Dalits who are exploited most due to caste hierarchy and due to the absence of a proper land reform policy. As the land is traditionally belonged to so-called higher castes and lower strata people have very little or no land for farming; therefore they are forced to work as laborers in other’s fields. In states like Kerala, where land reforms have been implemented by statute, bonded labor virtually has been eliminated as opposed to States like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka where large portions of land are still held by families who practice feudal forms of land ownership and labor employment.
Bonded labor is one of the specific forms of Forced labor (i. e. beggar) in which a person is forced to sell labor to pay his/her debt. However, not all bonded labor is forced, but most forced labor practices are of bonded nature either by coercion or by compulsion.
Further, it’s not only in agriculture sector that bonded labor is prevalent, in urban areas also many sectors such as mining, match making and brick kiln industries etc, it is widely practiced. Migrant laborers in urban areas are forced to sell their labor for no or nominal remuneration.
Children are also widely exploited under this inhuman system particularly in small scale industries such as firecracker units, match making units, textiles, leather goods manufacturing etc; they are also employed in tea-shops, restaurants and dhabas etc and are forced to work from morning till night.
Abolition of Bonded Labor System in India: Constitutional and Other Provisions
As per Article 23 of the Constitution of India, traffic in human beings, beggar, and other similar forms of forced labor are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
The Supreme Court has ruled in various decisions that bonded labor can be regarded as a form of forced labor and hence is unconstitutional under Article 23.
So this is one of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by our Constitution and to give effect to Article 23, Parliament has enacted the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. The Act makes system of bonded labor a punishable offence.
However, in spite of Constitutional and legal provisions, the implementation of law is not up to the mark. Slow implementation and resistance from persons of higher social strata are not letting this evil practice to be completely wiped out.
Role of the Supreme Court in Abolition of Bonded Labor
Improper or non-implementation of legal provisions has given rise to several judicial pronouncements by the Supreme Court through Public Interest Litigations (PILs). For instance:
In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India (1984 SC), a PIL was filed by an organization working for the upliftment of bonded laborers. Large numbers of laborers were working in stone-quarries in Haryana under inhuman conditions with no medical aid, no safety rules and on very little remuneration; the State authorities were not properly enforcing relevant laws. Thus, the SC ordered release of these people from bondage immediately and also emphasized on the rehabilitation of released bonded laborers.
This was one of the landmark cases where the Highest Court had to intervene for the cause of poor bonded laborers. Justice Bhagwati observed:
“Bonded labor is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to built nad it is not only an affront to basic human dignity but also constitutes gross and revolting violation of constitutional values.”
On rehabilitation part, the SC, in the case of Neeraja Chaudhari v State of M. P. (AIR 1984 SC) has observed that bonded labor must be identified and released and, on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated.
In 1997, the Court asked the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) to take over the monitoring of the implementation of the directions of Court regarding release and rehabilitation of bonded laborers and also that of the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Thus, the SC has played an active role in fighting this social menace.
Therefore, due to efforts of several NGOs and vigilant role played by the Supreme Court, the system of bonded labor has been on decline. But it’s not altogether abolished from the society which is a very unfortunate situation for a country like India who wants to be a world leader in 21st century.
We can still see around us adult and children both working in worst of the working conditions on very little payment; forced to work on 12 to 14 hour shifts in various occupations. Moreover, the mental attitude of so-called higher castes or higher economic strata people has not entirely changed; news reports confirm that still domestic maids are being treated like animals and various kinds of cruelties including sexual exploitation are being done upon them; they are provided with very little food, worst place to sleep and minimum amount of payment. Such kind of incidents cannot be stopped only by the efforts of NGOs or the SC or by Government authorities; it is the people themselves who need to change their mentality.
Therefore, it is important that we as a society must change our attitude towards persons of weaker sections and try to restore the value of human dignity which is a part of right to life.