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Wednesday, June 7, 2023
LAHORE, Jul 23 1996 (IPS) - Four-year-old laws banning bonded labour in Pakistan have secured the freedom of only a few hundred farm labourers and their families.
The centuries-old practice of treating farm workers like virtual slaves still flourishes on the huge farms in feudal Sindh province that are owned by just a few wealthy and politically influential families.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was announced in 1992, but never strictly enforced by government’s since. A majority of Sindh assembly members are themselves big farmers.
The legislation though has proved a catalyst of change, providing legal cover to non-governmental groups working to free bonded agricultural workers, who are locally called ‘haris’. However, in many cases their freedom has spelt further problems.
At the same time, furious at the loss of cheap sources of labour, landowners have been lashing out at rights activists, accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to sabotage the economic interests of Sindh and defame Pakistan abroad.
After all, say the landlords, the system has been running smoothly for centuries. Why disturb it now? They contend that in return for their labour, the ‘haris’ are provided food, shelter and clothing.
Rights groups say the truth though is that bonded workers are exploited: entire families live in shabby one-room hovels, eating and living poorly. Their children are malnourished, do not go to school and have no access to even basic health care.
Paid in kind and not wages, and forced to borrow from landowners for weddings, deaths and other social occasions, they are trapped in the cycle of indebtedness from which there is no hope of release for even future generations.
Debts keep mounting, and are passed on from father to son, while unscrupulous landlords take advantage of their workers’ illiteracy to fiddle with accounts. “If the peasant is given wheat worth Rs 200 (roughly four dollars), the rate noted in the register will be Rs 300,” says Jam Saqi, ex-left-party activist, now adviser to the Sindh chief minister on labour affairs.
Tales of cruelty, beating and rape are common. There have even been cases of farm workers being shackled by landlords to prevent them from escaping.
A hari family can leave his employer only if he repays his debt or if the new employer is willing to repay the loan. Apologists of the system like Agha Saleem, a well-known writer and editor of the Sindhi language paper ‘Jago’ (awaken) opines: “if the hari suddenly decides to leave and join another employer without paying his dues, is it justified?”
But I.A. Rehman, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) which has been in the forefront of the campaign against bonded labour, retorts: “We are talking about haris in slavery, which is banned in the Constitution.”
“Landlords are in the habit of buying and selling the families of peasants, like vegetables,” maintains Dr Qadir Magsi of the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party (Sind Progressive Party), which has rescued some 300 bonded peasants.
Most of these freed workers have been resettled in Sindh on government land. A roughly 1,000 others rescued by HRCP are living on land owned by a Christian missionary group in a village called Matli.
“Here, we can live the way we want, marry our children according to our own wishes, celebrate how we like,” says Jima, a middle-aged woman.
“Even a caged bird, which is provided with food, water and other necessities of life, yearns for freedom,” says an old woman who claims to be 80. Her youngest grandson is attending school for the first time, she declares with pride.
The boy’s mother, Alloo, who earns extra money doing ‘rilli’ or traditional patchwork, says, “My daughters and grand- daughters will be spared the landlords’ cruelty.”
Many of the rescue operations were carried out in the stealth of the night, and at great personal risk to HRCP activists who say they have received death threats in person and by telephone.
The church organisation which has given temporary shelter to the freed farm labour has been warned of a bomb assault. And the powerful landlords’ lobby is accusing it of proselytising, a serious crime in Pakistan.
“By projecting the issue as a religious one, the landlords are trying to break the power of those fighting for the oppressed haris,” says Rev. Joseph Coutts, Bishop of Hyderabad who helped find the shelter at Matli. “The landlords don’t want to lose their cheap labour force. Freeing bonded labourers from their ‘private’ jails goesagainst the feudal system which is dominant in Sindh.”
Under pressure from the agriculturists’ lobby, the government has retreated on the issue of freeing bonded labour, even postponing a series of seminars it had organised on the issue. The backlash indicates the battle has only begun, say rights activists in Pakistan.
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