Modern-Day Slavery: How Dalits From Lalitpur Became Bonded Labourers in Delhi
The nature of bondage is cyclical, which means that thanks to chronic poverty and ostracisation, the same people who were exploited earlier will be exploited now.
Pusau remembers the day clearly. Five years ago, he was in the same condition as he is today – an empty stomach, with absolutely zero money and as much hope. That was the first time he received his “release certificate.” That was also the first time that he realised that modern-day slavery doesn’t end with release certificates.
I first met Pusau, his wife Jhuna and 19 others from Madawara village of Lalitpur at an activist’s office in south Delhi’s Bhogal. They, like hundreds who flock to the national capital everyday, had left their village hoping to get a better job, a better life. Little did they know that they would end up wageless, enslaved and trapped in the Bhavani Kunj area of Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. That is not all. They were not given enough food and occasionally, were beaten up.
According to Pramod, a 24-year-old daily-wage labourer, he and 22 other Dalit labourers were asked to build a boundary wall around a farm in Vasant Kunj. Confined within the farm, they were never allowed to go outside and were always surrounded by people who kept a close watch on them.
“The contractor, Sanjay, used to carry a pistol, with which he would intimidate us. We were forced to work continuously for 12-14 hours and were not even allowed to take lunch breaks. We starved and fell ill,” says Pramod. Without even realising it, Pramod and the others had become “bonded labourers.”
Endless loop of exploitation
Pusau, Pramod and others are among several hundred who continue to suffer as bonded labourers in India. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that there were 8,132 reported cases of human trafficking across India in 2016. As is abundantly clear, many cases go unreported.
Widespread chronic poverty and socio-economic inequality often go into forming inter-generational cycles of bonded labour. Pusau says that there was never any work in Lalitpur. Even if there is some work, it isn’t given to them but to people with “better network” in the village. Such cases are not uncommon in India, where social stigma clubbed with economic marginalisation of Dalits have led to unequal power dynamics.
With rampant unemployment, people – many of whom are landless, poverty-stricken and lack agency – are forced to migrate. The 11 families form Lalitpur were no different. They agreed to come to Delhi with Prakash, who allegedly lured them with work prospects.
“He had promised us Rs 400 per day for eith chunayi (brick construction work),” says Pusau’s wife Jhuna. Instead, Prakash handed them over to Sanjay, the builder, who paid them absolutely nothing for three months of their work.
This is not the first time that labourers have been exploited. According to Jhuna, she was held as a bonded labour in Saharanpur in 2014 as well. “Although I was rescued, I haven’t received my wages.” Pusau was held as a bonded labourer in Telangana as well.
Although under Section 370 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), unlawful compulsory labour is prohibited, Pusau and his wife have been enslaved and forced to work for a total of three times now.
Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour (NCCEBL), who rescued Dalit labourers from Vasant Kunj farm says,”It’s a loop. The problem cannot be eliminated until the cycle is broken and the affected are properly rehabilitated.”
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, which is an extension of Article 23, intends to free all bonded labourers, cancel their debts, establish rehabilitative measures and punish the offender through imprisonment and fine.
According to the updated Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour Scheme, 2016, authorities are bound to rehabilitate labourers – psychologically, socially and economically. However, Nirmal highlights, “that seldom happens.”
“We were poor then and we are poor now. We have worked all our lives. But our condition remains the same. We still live in the tin and mud house our father left for us,” says Pusau.
“I see cases like these quite often it’s never about one person. An entire community or family comes, suffers and are entrapped,” said advocate Anupradha Singh. Singh works with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) organisation which is aiding the labourers legally.
She has seen cases where labourers work for 18 hours a day. In clear breach of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, that sets the standard amount of wages to be paid to labourers, Pusau and many like him continue to be exploited every day. “Sometimes it’s three months, sometimes five. We have seen cases where people have been held captive for more than 10 years,” she adds.
The attitude of the authorities offers further disappointment. Singh says that according to the 1987 Act, it is the responsibility of sub-district magistrates and district magistrates to take action for the eradication of bonded labour in areas within their jurisdiction. “However, its saddening that they sometimes aren’t aware of the law, or are reluctant to take any action.”
She adds that whenever authorities are contacted and called for action, they respond with: “Ye, inhone toh jeans pehen rakkhi hai. Haath mai toh inke phone hai. Ye kahan se bandhua majhdoor ho gye?” (‘They are wearing jeans. Have mobile phones in hand. How can they be bonded labourers?’).
For Singh, it is inscrutable that the authorities seem to live in a pre-Independence era where bonded labourers should have no clothes to wear, should be confined in one place, should not be able to speak with anyone and wear shackles.
“So far only a statement has been issued by the SDM,” says Nirmal, who is awaiting a final report from the authorities. Nirmal intends to file a PIL in the high court if he doesn’t receive a report within the stipulated time of a month.
Despite several attempts, the SDM concerned (Mehrauli), was not available to make any comments on the issue and did not respond to calls.
Pusau, Jhuna and their compatriots, meanwhile, live lives mired in uncertainty and the cycle of labour repeats itself.
Courtesy: By Bhumika Saraswati / The Wire