India has always spearheaded the cause of the downtrodden. When we gave support to the antiapartheid movement in South Africa or side with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East we stood against injustice, exploitation and social or political discrimination in the world. But all this seems quite a part of international populism when people in our own country are exploited to the extent that they lead the life of slaves.
A large number of poor, ignorant and illiterate men, women and children work like slaves in the quarries on Delhi-Haryana border under the very nose of the Central Government. The life they lead and the condition in which they work is so ignoble that even the lives of the slaves in the palaces of the nawabs in India or those working for the Mughal kings would be adored. They can be equated with only the Negro slaves in Southern States of USA before 1862.
The bonded laborers, in India, are generally those working outside their homes in quarries, on big farms and in construction works taken up by contractors. There are certain agencies throughout the country that work even in the innermost parts of the rural areas. Their agents allure the poor and ignorant people with promises of employment.
The modus operandi is common everywhere. The laborer is generally given Rs. 500. A bond is got signed about which the illiterate laborer does not know anything. He is taken to Delhi, Haryana, Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh where the contractors work.
Swami Agnivesh made a survey of Delhi and Haryana. To his surprise he found hundreds of laborers working in the quarries under dangerous conditions. They were huddled in humble cottages and were given only two square meals as wages. Most of them suffered from fatal lung diseases.
The mafias employed by the contractors did not allow them to either meet other laborers or see any outsider. They had normally to work for ten or twelve hours. Men, women and children all were employed. It was a herculean task for the Swami and other social workers to get them freed with the help of some advocates who moved the Supreme Court.
Some new areas have been identified. The most notorious are in the Himalayan ranges in Uttar Pradesh. Construction work has been going on in Tehri Garhwal region for tunneling, barrages and power houses. Some 3000 bonded laborers were employed in these projects brought from Orissa. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala by labor contractors.
The most startling aspect was that of the ten firms working or these projects some were public sector undertakings including Nations Projects Construction Company. The workers were huddled in shanties surrounded with eight feet high fence so that they might not escape. The cruelty came to light only when the Supreme Court asked Mr. R. C. Agarwal Sub-Judge to make an enquiry. His report is rather a document on in human treatment meted out to the hapless laborers. It shows that there was average of at least one death a day in these projects.
Similar had been the plight of laborers employed in brick kilns and a Rajasthan Canal Project, a Central Government undertaking. After Bandh Mukti Morcha filed a petition in the Supreme Court, the Commissioner Om Srivastava was appointed to make an enquiry. His report was similar to that of Mr. Agarwal. He reported that the laborers are not only exploited financially but the women are raped, and even children sexually assaulted sometimes even at gun point.
Revealing has been the report of Commission that was appointed to enquire the fate of bonded laborers working in Bokaro Steel Plant, a government undertaking. Everywhere: contractors have been supplying cheap labor to these undertakings.
Since they are low paid even the trade unions do not take interest in them, and regular workers do not mix with them. All this cruelty is perpetrated with the connivance of industry inspectors, personnel officers and other government officials.
The institution of bonded laborers in rural areas has been very old. It prevails throughout the country. Orissa, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are well known for it. It is the landless laborers who have to work as bonded laborers. An awakening has already started-specially in Andhra Pradesh in the form of Naxalite movement.
Of late a new type of bonded laborers has come to’ light. They have been working in textile mills and other big mills in Ahmedabad and other industrial cities. Modus operandi is the same. They are supplied to the mills by contractors and are never shown on the rolls. Mr. Atulbhai Chinubhai, an industrialist of Ahmedabad unashamedly said, “the contract system is advantageous since salaries are far less. With an increasing labor force this trend will continue.”
Although there are a number of laws to prevent the institution of bonded labor they have never been applied. Some of the labor laws are the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, the Bonded Labor (Abolition) Act, 1976, Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970. No government agency has come to help these laborers except the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court can act only when there is a writ petition.
Moreover, it can give relief only to those on whose behalf the writ has been filed. For most of the cases writs are never filed. According to Swami Agnivesh, Chairperson, Bandhua Mukti Morcha there were six million bonded laborers till 1983.
The number has considerably increased since then. Out of these, according to Swami only 1, 33,000 had been rehabilitated by 1985. In 1987 it was found that many of the rehabilitated returned to the fold again due to utter poverty. The reward that Swami Agnivesh got for his efforts was that, on his return from Geneva after attending a meeting of a UN Working group, his passport was taken back by the Ministry of External Affairs on September 24, 1985.
It seems that some leaders, bureaucrats, industrialists, land-lords and contractors have formed a nexus to exploit the landless laborers who include women and children. Most of such laborers belong to the scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and poor backward people. They are all illiterate and belong to the unorganized sector. If the attitude of the States and Central Government remains lukewarm directly towards bonded laborers and indirectly towards the problem of illiteracy and rural uplift the exploitation will continue unabated.
Voluntary organizations and individuals can hardly afford to face the mafias of the contractors and government and police officials who are a party to these nefarious activities. It is because of this that the number of bonded laborers in urban areas alone has been estimated 10 to 12 million. The number in rural areas, where one cannot enjoy any safeguards, must be at least four times more.
We, in this respect, can hardly take consolation from the report of a US based Human Organization that declares that Pakistan tops the list of bonded laborers in the world.