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Mainstream, VOL LII No 9, February 22, 2014

Will the Voice of Sanity and Reason Wake Up to Take the Call against Human Bondage?

Saturday 22 February 2014, by Lakshmidhar Mishra

The abominable bonded labour system resting on the premise of unequal exchange is anathema to a civilised human conscience. It is a negation of inalienable human rights premised on respect for human dignity, decency, equality and freedom. It is a slur on the march of civilisation to the so-called material progress. It is the very antithesis of decent productive work.

The million dollar question is: how do we identify the victims of the system? Being in the twilight zone of human development they won’t be able muster courage and strength to bring to surface the story of their subjugation and exploitation. The perpetrators of the crime, backed by the superiority of their social and economic status, will never acknowledge their culpability but would always tend to evade and circumvent. Truth, therefore, will never surface; it will remain hidden like a pot of gold with a lid. It is a tragic commentary on the perverse conscience of mankind and the functioning of the ‘Rule of Law’ that while the victims are left alone to curse their inexorable destiny linked to debt and nurse their wounds, the offenders would either escape with impunity or the arms of the law are not long enough to catch them.

The Odisha Case

Let us go over the bare facts of the immensity of the recent human tragedy which struck on December 15, 2013 affecting the lives of a few innocent and helpless dadan labourers of South Odisha. It has few parallels in terms of its macabre character. Twelve workers of the Jaypatna Block of Kalahandi district of Odisha are paid dadan (advance) with the false assurance of getting jobs in Raipur (the capital of Chhattisgarh). They leave their hearths and homes behind to take up their jobs that promise them the illusory Eldorado or Disneyland.

It is indeed an irony that Kalahandi (meaning black pot), which had supplied rice during the Bengal famine (1943), is today worse than T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. There are no jobs, no decent income and livelihood and the grisly spectre of hunger and starvation awaits the families of the large number of landless agricultural laboureres. The twelve dadan labourers, when halfway into their destination, realised that they had been duped and were being taken to the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh. Ten of the twelve managed to escape leaving two members of their team (Niyal, a 22-year-old non-literate and landless Dalit youth from Pipalguda village, and Dhangda Majhi, a 32-year-old tribal) behind in the firm grip of the hawklike middlemen. These two hapless persons had to bear the brunt of the middlemen’s wrath by having their right hands chopped off deep inside a forest in Belpadain, Balangir district. The labour contractor and his accomplices dragged them and committed the act of wanton cruelty after asking them which of their limbs they would prefer to lose: a leg or a hand.

Reactions over such gruesome and barbaric act have ranged from disbelief to outrage and distress. The million dollar questions which need to be raised in the wake of such a macabre tragedy are:

• Can we ever bring back for these innocent and defenceless labourers what they have lost?

• Can we ensure that the penalty under the law against the offenders is sufficiently stringent and deterrent and proportionate to the gravity of the offence?

• Can we ensure that such banal acts are not repeated in a civilised society?

There are perhaps no straight and simplistic answers. The cause for our disquiet is not one but many.

The First:

A law enacted with the best of intentions is not and cannot be a panacea for all social evils.

The Second:

When a law or ruling is capable of diverse interpretations, we invariably tend to interpret it in a manner which makes it the enemy of those for whom the law or ruling has been enacted.

The Third:

The human appetite for cruelty is beyond reflection, beyond analysis and beyond comprehension. It is inexplicable as to why a set of human beings derive such sadistic pleasure from the abuse of other living creatures—human and non-human alike.

The Fourth:

It is equally inexplicable as to why public memory of such wanton cruelty is so short. When public memory is so short, it becomes the best defence for crime, criminals and a shield for flagrant violation of human rights. It keeps justice at bay or makes the battle for justice longwinded.

What did the Crime Really Mean?

The crime itself is a manifestation of wanton cruelty but the politics that perpetrated it is typical. The workers, being from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, have eyes to see and ears to hear but no tongue to speak. By chopping off their hands, the middlemen were sending a strong message to ‘people’ like them. They were playing on the fears of a community that has long lived on the psychosis of fear; they were reiterating the lessons that they may have forgotten and ensuring that ‘they’ understood where they belonged.

And what if the labourers had gone with the middlemen to the unknown destination? The right hands of the two workers would have been intact but all of them would have been trapped under some of the most precarious working conditions akin to bondage. As bonded labourers they would have worked for very long hours without any spread over and overtime wage. Citing the advance taken, the middlemen like Shylock in Merchant of Venice would have extracted their pound of flesh. For sheer biological survival they would have been forced to incur more and more advances. A vicious cycle of bondage would have trapped them for the rest of their lives. And they would not have been able to muster the courage to question the quixotic logic of the arithmetics of advances which never get liquidated. Ignorant, illiterate and unorganised, they have no alternative except to accept debt as their destiny. For such victims deliverance from a vicious system of economic exploitation and social repression will remain ever illusive.

Bonded Labour System and Physical Violence

A bonded labour specialist, who has carried out over 300 rescue operations across Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, notes: ‘It is the first time that the case of bonded labour is causing such nationwide stir, but the fact is that such cases are not at all an exception. In one case, the head of a family was tied to a pole and beaten to death. The owner was wealthy and influential and he made sure that the post-mortem report read suicide by consumption of poison. But all the workers in the facility knew the truth. In another case, a young mother was continuously raped by the owner and when she resisted, her hands were burnt.’

There are other stories of violence equally gruesome—pregnant mothers being forced to work until the minute of their delivery and then being forced to work just a few hours after it, nursing mothers being denied the time to feed their newborn babies resulting in the death of the latter, women being raped at knife-point, men being mutilated—the stories are devastating.

Stringent Punitive Action—the Need of the Hour

Most bonded labour crimes emerge from a misplaced sense of power, a power that makes the owner think and believe that he owns the workers under him, a power that makes him believe that because he is of a higher caste and the labourer is generally a Dalit, he is worthy of little more than ill-treatment. To get to the root of the problem, the owners need to be divested of that power by a law that criminalises their actions.

Regretfully (and this is not a prior reading of the extent of punishment yet to come in the Kalahandi case), in most cases, conviction rates for human rights violation in matters relating to bonded labour are abysmally low and not, as repeatedly emphasised by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, proportionate to the gravity of the offence.

Where do We Go from Here?

The bonded labour system will not end without an intensely sensitive and proactive approach and planned, coordinated, concerted and determined efforts from both the Centre and State(s). A State level Action Plan with components of massive advocacy for generation of mass critical awareness in all sections of the civil society, prevention, correction, stringent and deterrent punishment of bonded labour-keepers with built-in structures at the State and district level, with eternal vigilance and surveillance and collection of accurate intelligence on the prevalence of the social scourge, timely action for release, repatriation and rehabilitation of all freed bonded labourers with institutional arrangement for intensive orientation and training of all concerned are the undisputed needs of the hour. Simultaneous dialogue is urgently called for between the originating and destination States and measures through intensification of public works taken to prevent and minimise the incidence of advance-based distress migration which paves the way for exploitative debt bondage.

Dr Lakshmidhar Mishra, IAS (Retd), is a former Union Labour Secretary.