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PAKISTAN: Free at Last, From Generations of Bonded Labour

Zofeen Ebrahim

Hyderabad, Mar 12 2006 (IPS) - Just 22, Jai Kumar, a teacher, knows what he wants for his students at the informal school for ‘freed’ bonded labour near this southern Pakistani city. ”I’m going to make sure that none of them ever end up working at the young age I was forced to. Each one of them will enroll in the government school once I’m through with them,” he asserts.

Kumar teaches some 30 children in a one-room makeshift school in Udehero Lal, one of the seven shelters established by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) for freed bonded labour around Hyderabad. Called ‘haris’ in Pakistan, in bondage they have no rights or privileges as peasants, sharecroppers or labour. Entire families including children work without wages, in perpetuity, to pay off even small debts to their employers.

Nasreen Shakil Pathan, coordinator of HRCP’s Special Task Force in Sindh province, has been active in releasing the haris. ”For the last three decades we have continuously highlighted their plight through the media and made direct interventions for their release,” she says. The commission claims that some 30,000 people have been set free in parts of rural Sindh province including Tharparkar, Mirurkhas, Badin, Sanghar and Hyderabad.

Jujho has been living in Udehero Lal camp for almost four years. ”All that I’d seen while growing up was perpetual hunger and humiliation at the hands of the landlord’s men. All my family members worked, including my mother and younger sister. My mother would say we have to work to pay off the loans taken by my grandfather from the landlords. However hard and long we all worked, the exorbitant interest on the loan my grandfather had taken was never paid.”

Bonded labour is usually intergenerational and at times men, women and children can be sold to another landlord without their knowledge. Sometimes, in order to pay off a debt to one landowner, haris may request another landowner to buy them. But in the process they are tied in debt to their benefactor, and the cycle of bondage repeats itself.

How do sharecroppers get indebted? Ali Nawaz Nizamani, project manager of PEBLISA or Promoting the Elimination of Bondage Labour in South Asia, a rehabilitation project for bonded labour being carried out by the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Hyderabad, explains: ”Poor sharecroppers borrow money, small amounts, for subsistence as they are paid only after the harvest. This accumulates with interest. They also have to pay their share for seed, water, pesticides etc. By the time the crop is ready, they are just able to pay off the first debt and the interest and borrow more.”

Fifty-year old Meghi says she was enslaved for 20 years. ”I was forced to live separately from my husband. For four years, the landlord continuously raped me. I tried fleeing but was hauled back, and as a punishment, chained like a buffalo so I wouldn’t run away,” she recalls.

For Punni, a life of freedom has restored her self-respect. ”Now we earn and eat,” she says. ”Then too we worked, but in return all we received was humiliation.”

Meera recounts that ”sitting and talking, like we are doing just now, or even sharing a few laughs or tears, was unheard of. We just worked and worked.”

Bonded labour was outlawed in Pakistan in 1992, but it is rampant in the brick kiln, construction, carpet weaving, agriculture, mining, glass bangles, tanneries and domestic work sectors. ”Despite the fact that a law exists, this remains unused and most people were released under habeas corpus. Another problem is there is little understanding of the law or, for that matter of the issue, among the judiciary,” says Zulfiqar Shah, a researcher who has worked extensively on bonded labour issues.

How do bonded labour free themselves? By either escaping from the clutches of landowners, or being set free by the police during raids. Thereafter, the HRCP steps in to assist them to file petitions in court for permission to lead free lives and obtain Azadi Cards (freedom cards) that protect them against being whisked off by their former landowners.

Sometimes the freedom remains only on paper. Seventy-year-old Munoo Bheel has been on ”token’ hunger fast outside the Hyderabad Press Club for three years because nine members of his family were forcibly abducted by men belonging to their former landowner, Abdul Rehman Marri, in 1998. The nine have not been traced despite a suo moto notice by the Supreme Court, promises made by the governor and chief minister of Sindh province, and intervention by the local spiritual leader, Pir Pagara.

Bheel says he has been offered as much as Rs 300,000 (6,000 dollars) to stop pursuing the case. ”I’ve spent eight years fighting to get my family back, do they think they can quieten me down with their offers?” he asks.

According to Nizamani, what is needed is the amendment and then implementation of the Tenancy Act and setting up of Hari Courts. ”Before the devolution system, the deputy commissioner acted as the magistrate and resolved all hari-zamindar (landlord) issues. Now there is no such person with this authority.” But this may never happen, he cautions. ”Since the politicians are themselves landlords, they would never favour this (tenancy reforms),” he adds.

Some freed bonded labour have been provided rehabilitation and employment opportunities by NRSP, which has been working together with the HRCP. Nearly 5000 dollars have been distributed as microcredit among nearly 1,000 families. Three hundred families have taken loans to invest in livestock and small enterprises. ”Our savings scheme has been really successful. The recovery is almost 97 percent,” Nizamani says.

The NRSP has also started 12 one-room schools, like teacher Kumar’s in Udehero Lal, for about 1,000 children, where tuition is free and so are the books and the uniforms. But attendance is poor. “The problem is migration. Many families lead a nomadic life.. They move to look for work and take their families along as even the children help in the fields,” according to Nizamani.

More successful has been a housing project. The NRSP bought 24 acres of land with money from the World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) fund. Divided into 400 plots, these were put on sale to the former haris at a very nominal rate. Only women could bid for the plots, and the poorest of the poor were given priority. The loan has to be paid back in one year at the easily affordable rate of Rs 235 per month (roughly five dollars). So far, 54 families have cleared their loans to become owners of their plots.

”Before the project got off, we conducted a random survey and asked some 700 released bonded labourers in seven camps what sort of assistance they expected. Housing topped the list of demands,” said an NSRP worker. Four hundred low-cost houses will be built on the plots by the Ministry of Labour and Manpower with money from the Bonded Labour Fund of over Rs 100 million (20 million dollars) established in 2001 for the rehabilitation and provision of alternate livelihood for released labour. Nizamani is hopeful that families with their own homes will stay in one place, and explore local employment avenues like livestock breeding.

Construction has begun on 38 houses, while 47 families have started living on their allotted plots in makeshift homes. ”This is indeed a big leap for people who, when they escape from the clutches of the landowner, don’t have anything, except the clothes they wear. Getting a piece of land which they can call their own would be a dream come true,” says Nizamani.

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