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Human Rights

Empowering India’s Poor so They Don’t Return to Bonded Labour – Part 2

Entire communities are being gradually empowered to resist traffickers and are being taught the necessary legal knowledge to eradicate slave and bonded labour from their midsts in the near future. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Entire communities are being gradually empowered to resist traffickers and are being taught the necessary legal knowledge to eradicate slave and bonded labour from their midsts in the near future. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, India, Oct 5 2020 (IPS) - One day, while the rest of his family were out at work, Kamlesh Pravasi from Jigarsandih village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh was “abducted when I returned home one day from school, by a contractor’s goons,” he told IPS. The then 12-year-old Pravasi, who was in the sixth grade, was forced to work in bonded labour in a brick kiln because his father could not repay a Rs 5,000 ($68) loan he had taken out from the contractor in order to pay for medical treatment for Pravasi’s sick brother.

Pravasi, along with his two younger brothers, was made to work from the early hours in the morning (from around 2 or 4 am) until 7 pm in the evening, for little or no payment. The family, comprising his parents and six siblings, could do little to alleviate their plight.

“Being illiterate, my parents were unsure of how much they owed to the contractor,” Pravasi admitted to IPS. The boys slaved in the kiln for five years — from 2012 to 2017 — until they were  eventually rescued by activists affiliated to the Human Liberty Network (HLN). HLN is a network of grassroots NGOs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh working to end slavery and bonded labour.

Pravasi is now employed in construction work, and will soon sit for his intermediate grade /higher secondary examinations.

The story of Pravasi and his brothers is not an unusual one.

For Rajkumar Ram from Katahan village in West Champaran district of Bihar, a loan of Rs 30,000 ($410) taken 20 years ago meant that he and his entire family — including his wife, his three sons and young daughters — had to work in a brick kiln from 5 am in the morning to late evening for free.

The Ram family, like Pravasi and his brothers, where also rescued — but in their case help came from within the family.

Veena Devi (left) with her in-laws and husband. She was able to save her husband's family from years of bonded labour.

Veena Devi (left) with her in-laws and husband. She was able to save her husband’s family from years of bonded labour. Courtesy: Rina Mukherji

Veena Devi, came to the rescue of the Ram family, after marrying into the family in 2015.

“It was when I enrolled for vocational training and non-formal education under a non-governmental   organisation-NIRDESH, that I realised what inter-generational bonded labour meant,” Devi told IPS.

She also learnt that the entire village of Katahan, comprising 37 families, had been condemned to such inter-generational bonded labour.

With a matriculation certificate, Devi took up a teacher’s job at a non-formal education centre, became a member of a local self-help group, and with the help of activists, raised the funds to secure their release.

Her husband, Bansi Ram, now works in a dress-making factory, while her father-in-law has opened a grocery shop. Her brothers-in-law work as plumbers, while her mother-in-law rears goats.

Parents may be lured with a lump sum ofRs 5,000 ($68) to Rs. 10,000 ($136) paid in advance, as Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan ( MSEMVS) executive director Dr. Bhanuja Sharan Lal told IPS. MSEMVS is an NGO that focuses on the eradication of child labour.

“We recently rescued nine children from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh who were trafficked to a panipuri (a type of snack) factory in Telangana after their parents were paid an advance of Rs 10,000 ($136) each. They were working free from 2 am to 4 pm in return for meals. Eight rescued children from Azamgarh (in Uttar Pradesh) were similarly employed in a textile factory in Gujarat as slave labour.”

Government initiatives & impediments in overcoming the problem

Of those most vulnerable are the Mahadalits and Dalits who have been confined to illiteracy and grinding poverty because of a casteist social structure.

Discrimination based on caste is illegal according to the country’s constitution and for more than 70 years the government has placed quotas on government jobs and education positions in order to ensure opportunities to all.

Affirmative action by the government has also contributed to Mahadalit children being sent to school, but most are first generation learners. This can limit the access families have to government schemes.

The Skill India initiative by the central government, which was launched in July 2015 and aims to train 400 million individuals in various skills by 2022, has evaded Mahadalit youngsters.

“To qualify for Skill India, you need to have a matriculation certificate. Poverty and family pressures cause most Mahadalit children to drop out after the sixth grade,” explains human rights activist and Adithi director Parinita Kumari of the reasons behind the exclusion of these groups.

Government efforts to rehabilitate migrant returnees through jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) too generally failed, since many were found to have no job cards and hence did not qualify.

  • The Act guarantees 100 days of wage employment to a rural household where the adults are willing to undertake unskilled labour.

“While those who returned through quarantine centres arranged by the government, were registered, the ones who returned on their own, were not; this made it difficult for them to avail of government schemes,” Kumari said.

Initiatives that work

The Bihar government, under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, came up with a Mahadalit Vikas Yojana (Plan for the Development of Mahadalits), which was implemented in 2010. The Plan for the Development of Mahadalits saw the setting up of the Bihar Mahadalit Mission, wherein Mahadalits are being granted small pockets of land (122 square metres).

They are also supported with access to various financial, educational and other schemes, including the setting up of residential schools, community radio stations, assistance for buying school uniforms, skill development and women’s self-help groups.

Eradication of bonded labour is not an easy goal to achieve, given the circumstances that the practice draws sustenance from.

NGOs affiliated to HLN have been actively organising the most vulnerable communities in source, transit and destination villages into Community Business Committees, which use survivors/victims of trafficking as peer educators to impart the necessary knowledge to communities through awareness programmes. 

Since these individuals have first-hand knowledge of the modus operandi of traffickers, and are people drawn from within the community, the peer educators immediately strike a chord  among those they seek to educate.

“We have been conducting classes to impart knowledge on government helplines, and giving financial training through lead banks to survivors/victims of trafficking and rural communities in general so that they can access government schemes and apply for livelihood grants,” activist and Rural Organisation for Social Advancement chief functionary, Mushtaque Ahmed told IPS. 

Adithi has also been helping individuals take advantage of the Plan for the Development of Mahadalits, and access landholdings. 

Communities are also informed about government helplines to report trafficking, and given financial training through lead banks to access government schemes and livelihood grants.    

Consequently, entire communities are being gradually empowered to resist traffickers and are being taught the necessary, legal knowledge to eradicate slave and bonded labour from their midsts in the near future.

By empowering the poor to demand and access their rights, and imparting the necessary functional and financial literacy, one can be certain that “they don’t return to bonded labour,” Lal told IPS.

  • This is the second in a two-part series on bonded labour in India. Find Part 1 here.


This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group.

The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.

The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalisation of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.

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