Bonded labor in contemporary India

Question – Discussing the underlying reasons for the existence of bonded labor in contemporary India, also discuss the efforts made to eradicate it. – 30 October 2021

Answer – 

Bonded labour, also known as indebtedness, is a specific form of forced labour. Under this, the credit factor is responsible for slavery or forced labor. It is also a debtor-creditor relationship where the debt burden of a worker is often transferred to the members of his family. The duration of bonded labor is usually indefinite and involves illegal contractual contracts. It is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery, despite being banned in international law and in most domestic jurisdictions.

Bonded labor in India is prevalent in both rural and urban areas. Following are the major reasons responsible for the prevalence of bonded labor in contemporary India:

  • Economic reasons: Health emergencies, religious ceremonies, marriages, etc. prompt the poor, landless etc. to take loans or advances from local moneylenders, contractors or employers, often on unfavorable terms. The inability to repay the loan can force the debtor or often other family members to work for the employer or contractor at low or no wages until the loan is repaid. Additional credit can be taken to meet essential needs and create an unbroken cycle of increase in debt, indebtedness and exploitation.
  • Political reasons: Despite passing laws like the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976, bonded labor is yet to be abolished completely. No nationwide government survey has been conducted since 1978 to identify the prevalence of bonded labor, although each district is funded for such surveys.
  • Social causes: The social factors responsible for the origin and continuation of these conditions are- caste structure (bonded laborers mainly from scheduled castes), ethnicity, illiteracy, unjust social relations etc. All of them perform the role of converting economic transactions between a lender and a borrower into a system of social control and subordination.

Apart from the above known reasons, practical challenges exist for the rescue and rehabilitation of victims. Such as failure to provide adequate rehabilitation services, lack of human and financial resources, limited organizational accountability and low level of infrastructure between the government and other stakeholders along with NGOs.

  • Strengthening the legislative framework through the implementation of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 and the passing of laws such as the Human Trafficking (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, the National Domestic Workers Work Regulation and the Social Security Bill, 2016.
  • The focus should be on effective implementation of central sector schemes such as the ‘Bonded Labor Rehabilitation Scheme’ (revised in 2016). It provides for the creation of a Bonded Labor Rehabilitation Fund at the district level to provide immediate assistance to free bonded labourers. Other important provisions are also included in this scheme in relation to the rehabilitation of bonded laborers, conducting surveys related to them, etc.
  • Prevent recurrence of indebtedness: Prevent recurrence/recurrence of indebtedness by ensuring access to microfinance (microcredit), implementing land reforms, strengthening PDS, providing education and health support, etc.
  • Sensitivity and task-oriented: To sensitize workers at all levels to adopt a task-oriented approach and plan a detailed program for their training.
  • Implement a national action plan for all victims of modern slavery that identifies cross-border and localized forms of slavery in different contexts.

All the above mentioned efforts will go a long way in ending this regressive system of bonded labor.

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