TACOMA, Washington — The practice of bonded labor has existed across the world for centuries. To many, the term slavery in the current context may seem shocking. However, Anti-Slavery International estimates that about 40 million people around the world are “trapped in modern slavery” today. It is particularly pervasive in India. Bonded labor in India remains widespread despite government efforts to outlaw it. However, the Indian government is employing various strategies to bring an end to this form of forced labor in the nation.
What Is Bonded Labor?
Bonded labor in India is tied strongly to the nation’s history and various forms of structural inequality that are embedded in Indian society. The caste system in India has a complex beginning that is related to both British colonial rule and Hinduism. The modern manifestations of the caste system continue to discriminate and subordinate people of lower castes. These people are often called “Untouchables” or Dalits.
Professor Narendra Subramanian is a professor of politics and comparative government at McGill University, specializing in South Asian politics. He gave The Borgen Project some insightful information about the relationship between caste and bonded labor. Professor Subramanian noted that there is a difference between caste-related bondage and debt bondage, but that the two often coincide.
Caste Versus Debt Bondage
Caste-based bondage is often based on ancestral ties, Subramanian said. He explained that “ancestral bondage involves, kind of like slavery, people that may continue to be bonded to the same landlords and plantation owners based on their own ancestors having been bonded to that family.”
Yet, people of lower castes who are not involved in caste-based bondage are still some of the most vulnerable to debt bondage because of their economic positionality. Subramanian explained that “the groups that experienced ancestral bondage – lower castes and some tribal groups – have the greatest propensity to fall into the most usurious forms of debt because they have difficulty accessing loans.”
Thus, people are often recruited into deceptive labor contracts in which they are advanced a small loan from labor brokers or employers and asked to migrate for work. Then, instead of being paid on a monthly or weekly basis, their labor is quantified as repayment for this loan. Often, bonded laborers work for little to no pay and have no say in the terms of their debt. These conditions make it easier for their employers to exploit them, making it impossible to pay off their debt.
The Indian government outlawed debt bondage and other forms of bonded labor in 1976. Under Indira Gandhi’s authority, the Indian government integrated the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSA) into the Indian Constitution.
The BLSA’s terms called for the immediate freedom of every worker trapped under conditions of bondage in India. Despite this, a systematic survey conducted by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the National Labour Institute in December 1978 found that there were still 2.62 million bonded laborers in India at that time.
Subramanian explained that the continuation of bonded labor in India is largely due to a lack of enforcement. He also elaborated that the laws were more effective in areas “ where the affected groups are more mobilized [through]civil society organizations, NGOs, and political parties that engage these groups.” In effect, the regions where the BLSA is more strongly enforced have been those where debt bondage is less widespread.
However, this is not to say that government initiatives have not affected debt bondage at all. Between 1996 and 2004, a government-appointed commission identified, and subsequently, released 285,379 bonded laborers across India. Today, the state continues to make legal and practical efforts to eradicate bonded labor in India with the support of civil society organizations and NGOs.
COVID-19: Poverty and Bonded Labor
In October 2020, the World Bank warned that global extreme poverty would rise for the first time since 1998. This invariably affects India’s lowest caste the most. According to Brookings, “India’s per capita growth rate for 2020 has been revised downward to about 11%, one of the deepest recessions in the world.” Subramanian expounds that people will lose their jobs and suffer from food insecurity. These conditions will make people more vulnerable to bonded labor.
It is also crucial to recognize regional differences when it comes to debt bondage, poverty and caste. India is a geographically expansive nation with differing political, social and economic dynamics in each region. Subramanian believes that the economic effects of COVID-19 will be felt most in “regions where they haven’t consolidated strength that much.”
In the long-term, addressing structural inequality is the key to eradicating bonded labor. The avenues through which this can be achieved are multifaceted and complex; however, the most important aspect is to empower individuals at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy of India.
In 2010, the government of the Bihar region implemented Mahadalit Vikas Yojana (Plan for the Development of Mahadalits). This plan focuses mostly on education and land redistribution. It provides small plots of land for development as well as skill-building and self-help resources for the lower casts.
Subramanian emphasized that the central role of land redistribution and reform is aimed to uplift India’s poor. He claimed that “unequal agrarian relations remain a fundamental reason for the propensity of falling into debt bondage” in India.
To push for extensive land reform, Subramanian noted that lower castes must organize politically and pressure regional authorities for change. He explained that the “places where significant reform has been undertaken are places where there is strong mobilization by the concerned groups […] combined with political parties responding to this.”
The Skills India Initiative
In 2015, the Indian government launched another, more widespread initiative called the Skills India Initiative. This educational program aimed to impart various skills to 400 million individuals by 2022. However, structural barriers have prevented many from qualifying for this initiative. To qualify for Skills India, the government requires enrollees to have graduated from school, which many poor Indians are unable to do.
Bonded labor in India is a difficult issue to address and will certainly take years to eradicate. COVID-19 has been a setback to this effort. However, through further reforms and effective civil society initiatives, the government continues to wage a strong fight against bonded labor in India.
– Leina Gabra