Bonded labour is one of the forms of our freed labour existing predominantly in rural India. It is one of the most inhuman forms of social stigmas rooted in the socioeconomic structure of our country. Poverty and unemployment are the chief driving forces behind bondage. In addition to this, the Hindu caste hierarchy plays an important role in preserving this evil as low-paid and menial jobs cannot be done by higher castes. Hence, it is prevalent for many centuries. The various reports of the government and the research studies reveal that the extent and the form of bondage differ from state to state. Although beggar or ‘forced labour’ is prohibited under Article 23 of the Constitution of India till 1975 the problem of bonded labour did not receive the attention of the government seriously. An ordinance promulgated by the President of India in 1975, which became an Act in 1976, banned the system of bonded labour throughout the country. The book under review is the result of a nation-wide survey-conducted jointly by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the National Labour Institute in 1000 villages distributed over 295 districts in ten States.
The survey was started in May, 1978 and was completed in December 1978. For each of the ten States covered, one or more coordinators were appointed. The State Coordinators were responsible for carrying out the survey in their respective States.
According to the survey, Uttar Pradesh ranks first with 5,50,000 followed by Madhya Pradesh (5,00,000), Orissa (3,50,000) and Andhra Pradesh (3,25,000). On the basis of the very high incidence of bonded labour, certain regions were identified as special category prone to bondage.
Some of the principal findings of the survey are that: a) 86.6 per cent of the labourers come from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; b) 25 per cent of the bonded labourers belong to the age-group below 20 years; c) 90-94 per cent of the bonded labourers belong to the age-group between 21 and 40 years; d) 30 per cent of the bonded labour families are forced to send two or more of their family members; e) on an average, a labourer is in bondage for six years; f) 55 per cent of the bonded labourers take loans for the purpose of domestic expenditure; g) the average fixed wage is Rs. 60 per month; h) 45 per cent of the masters come from upper caste Hindus; i) 51 per cent of the masters employ two to five bonded labourers; and j) 75 per cent of the bonded labourers stated that debt was the most important obligation forced them into bondage.
The survey failed in working out the structure of credit agencies existing in rural India.
The survey analysed the different types of bondage depending on regional conditions such as intergenerational bondage, child bondage, loyalty bondage, bondage through land allotment and widow bondage. The investigation confined strictly to the agricultural sector.
The report completely neglected non-agricultural sectors like quarries, construction works, brick-kilns and hotels, etc., where bonded labour is mostly employed at cheaper wages. Several reports in economic and political weeklies brought to light the prevalence of bondage in brick-kilns of Punjab and Haryana. When the report claims that it is a national survey, it should have covered all the States to qualify the nomenclature. Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, Hary¬ana, North-Eastern States and Kashmir were excluded from the survey on the assumption that bondage is not prevalent in agriculture in these States.
For identification of bonded labourers, the survey adopted the definition given by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. The districts which had more than 40,000 bonded labourers were categorized as ‘Bonded Labour Districts’ by the survey. The total number of bonded labourers in ten States was out at 26,17,000. This figure seems to be nearer to the reality as the previous esti-mates by N.S.S. and the State Governments brought the total figures to very low levels.
So far, there is no single accurate estimate for the country as a whole with regard to the total quantum of bonded labourers.
The survey feels that the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 did not make the desirable progress in identification, release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. It opines that it is the responsibility of the political elite, which controls the economic and political power to devise ways and means to enforce the Act. It is really a blunder on the part of the survey to believe that the present political elite can eradicate this social evil. Our experience of the past 30 years has proved that we cannot abolish this evil with parliamentary methods. Even though the Labour Ministry is rich with funds, there is no adequate response from the States to utilize them. This only shows that the ‘powers that be’ are not ready to abolish this type of human slavery.
The survey recommends the setting up of a ‘National Council for the Liberation and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour’ which shall be directly accountable to the national council through its Parliament. The Prime Minister is supposed to be the Chairman of the National Council. It also suggested education and unionization of bonded labourers as other methods for eradication.
It is a grave mistake on the part of the survey to believe that these reformative measures will help in rooting out this evil. The rehabilitation schemes devised so far were half-hearted in nature. Some of the research studies estimated that the amount spent on each bonded labourer was very meagre. They were as low as Rs 100 to Rs 200. The centrally sponsored scheme now under implementation estimates an outlay of Rs 4,000 as adequate for such rehabilitation and the Indian Institute of Public Administration survey indicates that a total expenditure of Rs 14,000 to Rs 21,000 over a five-year period is necessary for total rehabilitation of each bonded labourer.
This makes it very clear that there is lot of gap between what we preach and practise. The problem of bondage is multi-dimensional and hence the strategy for its eradication must be such that it should bring about a thorough overhaul of the present socioeconomic structure. If the problem is not understood in the proper perspective and strategy is not well though-out, there is every possibility of the rehabilitated bonded labourers relapsing into bondage again.
Although the recommendations are futile, the survey has thrown out massive data, which will be useful for future researchers and administrators concerned. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, which is given in Appendix I and the ‘Health and Nutritional Survey of Bonded Labourers in Palamau District, Bihar, are the useful additions to the original text. This is the only exhaustive survey available to us so far. It is to be noted that the sale proceeds of the book are meant for the furtherance of research and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. The frequency tables given at the end of the book provide state-wise data that can be readily utilized by the future researchers in the concerned States. The survey would have been much more appreciated if it covered all the sectors in all the States.
Dr. N. Lingamurthy