Udaipur- On February 9, India observes Bonded Labour Abolition Day, a solemn occasion dedicated to reflecting on the nation's journey towards eradicating the scourge of bonded labour that has plagued society for centuries. Since the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976, significant strides have been made in dismantling this exploitative system. In 2021, the Tamil Nadu government announced its decision to designate February 9 as Bonded Labour System Abolition Day, making it the first state in the country to take such a step.
Despite implementing various measures, including the formulation of a state action plan and standard operating procedures, the eradication of bonded labor remains a challenge due to a lack of awareness among stakeholders and law enforcement authorities.
Bonded labour is widely practiced even today. The worst affected are the children and women particularly those from the Dalit community.
However, as the country commemorates this day, it is evident that the battle against bonded labour is far from over. Despite legal provisions and efforts, bonded labour, deeply entrenched in historical socio-economic structures, continues to afflict numerous individuals, particularly those from vulnerable communities.
Providing insights into the ongoing challenges, subject matter expert and former member of the Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Dr. Shailendra Pandya, highlighted that despite constitutional guarantees of freedom and rights, bonded labour persists in society. Recent child labour rescues in the Udaipur region exposed instances where children were subjected to bonded labour in jewelry making and brick kilns, often trafficked from other states like Bengal. Additionally, tribal children were found to be working as bonded labourers in various sectors, including Gujarat.
Bonded labour - or debt bondage - is probably the least known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay.
In states like Kerala, where land reforms have been implemented by statute, bonded labour virtually has been eliminated as opposed to states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamilnadu and Karnataka where large portions of land are still held by families who practice feudal forms of land ownership and labour employment. Owing to lack of livelihood options, large number of rural population are forced to work for landlords and eventually end up in perpetual debt traps resulting in entire families and villages ending up as bonded to the landlord for generations.
In Meghalaya's Jaintiya hills region, the extraction of coal in private coal mines relies solely on manual laborers, many of whom are bonded workers brought in from neighboring states in a bid to escape severe poverty.
According to a report published in The Hindu on October 19, 2012, a distressing case emerged involving a man who, four years prior, had sold himself and his wife into bonded labor to a village landlord in exchange for a loan of Rs. 45,000. Tragically, the man passed away in August, leaving behind the unpaid debt. Despite their tireless work on the landlord's farm, where they received minimal sustenance and endured relentless physical abuse, the couple remained unable to repay the debt, which only accrued interest over time. The husband endured brutal beatings at work, rendering him incapacitated for days. Furthermore, the wife faces social ostracization from the village until she settles the outstanding debt owed to the landlord. Although employing laborers against loans is illegal, it was a widely practiced and accepted norm in Punjab. These bonded laborers were subjected to abysmal wages and deliberate impoverishment, perpetuating a cycle of debt from which they struggle to escape.
The Bonded Labour System stands abolished throughout the country with effect from 25.10.1975 with the enactment of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. It freed unilaterally all the bonded labourers from bondage with simultaneous liquidation of their debts. It made the practice of bondage a cognizable offence punishable by law.
On commencement of this Act, the bonded labour system stood abolished and every bonded labourer stood freed and discharged free from any obligation to render bonded labour.
Any custom, agreement or other instrument by virtue of which a person was required to render any service as bonded labour was rendered void.
Liability to repay bonded debt was deemed to have been extinguished.
Property of the bonded labourer was freed from mortgage etc.
Freed bonded labourer was not to be evicted from homesteads or other residential premises which he was occupying as part of consideration for the bonded labour.
District Magistrates have been entrusted with certain duties and responsibilities for implementing the provisions of this Act.
Vigilance committees are required to be constituted at district and sub-divisional levels.
Offences for contravention of provisions of the Act are punishable with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and also with fines, which may extend to two thousand rupees.
Powers of Judicial Magistrates are required to be conferred on Executive Magistrates for trial of offences under this Act. Offences under this Act could be tried summarily.
In an effort to raise awareness and generate solutions, a one-day seminar is scheduled on Friday Februaary 9, at the Law Department, Shramjeevi College, Town Hall in Udaipur. Organized jointly by Janardan Rai Nagar Rajasthan Vidyapeeth, International Justice Mission, and Gayatri Seva Sansthan, the seminar aims to brainstorm suggestions towards freeing the state from bonded labour by 2030.
Nitin Paliwal, Coordinator of the Gayatri Seva Sansthan, emphasized that the seminar would be attended by district administration officials, representatives from the labour department, legal service authority, as well as experts and students from the legal field. The event seeks to foster dialogue, collaboration, and actionable steps towards combating bonded labour and ensuring the protection of vulnerable communities across India.