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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 33, August 1, 2009

From Slavery to Debt-bondage: Two Centuries of Exploitation in India

Sunday 16 August 2009, by Sudhanshu Bhandari


In human history, from the advent of advanced agrarian communities till the last quarter of the nineteenth century, slavery has been a part and parcel of most, if not all, human societies, and a most ubiquitous institution, with, of course, variations in the scale and intensity of exploitation. There have existed with various other forms of dependency such as villeinage, debt-bondage, pawnship but it was in slavery, that the worst forms of human exploitation and misery, the most blatant negation of the human personality, the natural rights of Man were to be seen.1

Thus, the Indian subcontinent was no exception to the general rule. When talking about slavery in India, we must understand that despite the appreciable presence of slaves in several regions of India, and a numerical strength of considerable proportions, slavery was not a pervasive part of Indian society, or more specifically, it never ascended to a level where a slave mode of production (to use Moses Finley’s terminology) could ever gain prevalence in our socio-economic set-up. The question which now arises is: when is a society characterised as possessing a slave mode of production? The critical determinant then is whether in a society, slavery as an institution had a dominant role in the productive sector and in determining the social and economic structures of society? In all pre-industrial societies, slavery always persisted along with other modes of production such as the feudal, and slaves always coexisted along with freemen; the determining test would, therefore, be:

If in any productive sector of a society—agriculture, industries/manufacture, mining, trade and commerce, if the scale of enterprise being executed was such that it could not be carried on by the labour of the family members unaided, and the use of hired labour was an exception, and of slave-labour the rule; then such a society could be defined as a slave-based one and characterised as exhibiting a slave mode of production. In such a society, slavery as an institution so transforms the social and economic structures that an integrated cycle of enslavement, slave-trade, utilisation, absorption (partial or total) is continuously taking place.

From the evidence adduced by the various British officers, one thing which comes out clearly is the general absence of slaves working in regular gangs, under the watchful scrutiny of a regular slave-driver and overseer. As Colonel James Welsh, who was well versed with the regions of the Madras Presidency, affirms,

though the nature of the climate and fertility of the soil did not call for much continuous labour, but then they did not have any particular hours which they could call their own, or any particular day of the week set aside for rest. The lash or coercive strokes were too commonly used and indiscriminately upon both the sexes.2

Thus, though not as actively supervised as the slaves of the West Indian islands, or those of the ante-bellum southern USA, the physical exploitation of slaves in Southern India was also quite severe as the detailed reports of T.H. Baber point out. This authority, who was one of those rare British officers possessive of genuine compassion for the Indian masses, points out that it was common for the slaves to be seized and flogged, put in the stocks, with their noses cut off and that the latter barbarous practice was in continuance even after the establishment of the company’s rule over the Malabar region. These are based on the examination by Baber of several witnesses who had seen several such cruelties inflicted upon them. One witness remarked that whenever the cherumars or slaves ran away or were convicted of any fault they would be flogged, put in stocks and confined. Another witness remarked that not only would they be flogged and put in stocks but made to work in fields with their chains on.3 As this conscientious officer, who had served in various judicious capacities as well, further claims, there was not a single session of gaol delivery, the calendar of which would not be containing cases of wounding and murdering of slaves (a vast number of such cases would never come to light), though these slaves were the most unoffending and unresisting class of people.


In the princely states of Cochin and Travancore, by the ancient customary laws, the slave-owners called jelinkars were accountable to no one for the life of their cherumars or slaves and could punish them with death.4 The degraded condition of these ‘cherumars’ could be analysed from an interesting description of the Niadees given by Colonel Walsh of the Madras establishment. He says:

These Niadees lived outside the pale of civilized life, building their huts at a great distance from other habitations, below trees or adjacent to the paddy fields of their masters, specialising in the cultivation of paddy. They were asked to watch over the paddy fields, day and night, as well as to accompany the hunters into the jungle. They would follow any traveller through the jungle for miles on end, making hideous noises, until their necessities were relieved, which is done by laying food or some money on the ground, which they will come to pick up later on, not approaching any person, European or native, and never molesting the most unprotected of natives, other than howling after them.5

What these reveal is the pathetic condition of the enslaved aboriginal tribes in the region of Travancore and Cochin princely states, and in the English controlled regions of Malabar and Wynad, all of which now constitute the State of Kerala. It appears that these tribals were not even given subsistence wages so that they were always under-nourished, and in bad times, on the verge of starvation. Their trait of howling for miles just to obtain some morsels of food from any wayfarer shows their utter exploitation at the hands of their devarus or masters (belonging to the Nair, Brahmin and other high castes).Their social degradation is apparent from the fact that they could not come in face-to-face contact with any person for fear of causing defilement.

Francis Buchannan, who travelled extensively across Mysore, Carnatic and Malabar in 1801-1802, also tells about their pitiable rations. He says that

by custom, a master was bound to give to his slave just two edangalies of husked rice /week which was 2/7th of what he considered as reasonable for the survival of a human-being of any age. The children and aged got even half of this pittance, the sick and the infants none at all. The only saving grace was, that at the time of harvest, these slaves got 1/21 of the gross produce, otherwise the slaves would not have even survived to work for their devarus. In the name of clothing, what they got was seven cubits of coarse cloth for the male slave, 14 cubits for the female as clothing for the entire year. Their living abodes were huts that were seldom better than large baskets, which they were asked to construct within their masters’ rice-fields, so that they could first be made to work from morning to sunset, and then asked to act as night-watchmen for the entire night, day in and day out, all the year round.6

The Commissioner of Malabar in 1822, Graham, reported that this allowance was always between one-and-a-half to one-and-three-by-four seers of husked rice for a male and from one to one-by-four seers of paddy for a female.7 For this toil from morning till evening, these slaves of Malabar would get neither anything to eat either at breakfast, or lunch, except a glassful of Kanjee or rice-water. The masters would only grant their slaves an evening meal, after which they would again be packed off to the paddy fields, to now act as night-watchmen in temporary sheds erected for that purpose at the centre of water-filled paddy fields, submerging their bodies under several feet of water everyday so as to prevent wild animals from destroying the crop.8 When not regularly employed, even these miserable rations, insufficient as they were, got halved to what they received during the working season. In such a scenario, they were reduced to starvation point and made to subsist by feeding upon wild yams, or such refuse as can only be sought after by groups in a most wretched state of existence. When even these were not available, and the cravings of hunger became intolerable, they were forced to enter into and rob the jackfruit, plantains and coconut plantations.

In the Malabar region, the ‘Pariars’ were another tribe that were rendered as agrestic slaves and were divided into three groups; Pariar proper, ‘Perrum Pariar’ to the north of Kodungalur and ‘Moonay-Periar’ to its south. These people were considered as so debased by the other castes that even proximity to them entailed ritual pollution, and were attributed with emanating a fetid odour, perhaps, due to their inclination for eating carrion. They were by custom granted the right over all dead animals within a village and that is why the death of a cow or bullock was a moment of great festivity for them. These people were experts in wicker-work, as also capable of exerting great physical labour on the field, but in the latter regarded by their owners as inferior to Puliyans. Other than these, there were other servile tribes like the Vaiduns and the Kaladurs, who were basically used in the cutting of timber, making of fences as well as guarding of crops but considered as unfit for agrarian operations.

The agrestic or field slaves were employed by their masters in every kind of agrarian activity; the males employed in the ploughing and sowing of seeds cum in all laborious work associated with the construction and maintenance of irrigation works so vital for wet-rice cultivation. In constructing the mud embankments, the male cherumars would be asked to dive into the water of the rivers and streams and come back with the soft alluvium which they would be seen carrying on their heads. A.D. Campbell, who served in high official posts, in the police and judicial department of the Madras Presidency, observed that in the Tamil part of Madras Presidency, all the grains which the slaves grew on lands not artificially irrigated, they cultivated for themselves, or for others as independent labourers. In one of the most fertile districts of Tanjore, which was the centre of rice cultivation in Southern India, agrestic slavery was confined primarily to the persons of only two castes—the Pullers and the Pariahs.

One of the British Collectors who presided over this district in the 1820s, Hepburn, stated that

the origin of their slavery rests on a voluntary contract entered into on the part of these persons by which they tend to seek the protection of a person more powerful than themselves upon whom the obligation to protect and maintain their families becomes incumbent. This collector remarks that the Brahmin land-owning families did not receive such slaves directly in their own name but that the bond was signed in the name of their Shudra dependants, and that one a bond of slavery had been entered into, it did not cease with the life of the contracting party but automatically passes on to his descendants for ever. That if the master of such pullers and pariahs is unable to maintain their bondsmen and their family, then they are free to take employment elsewhere but who are liable to be reclaimed at any time whenever he is in a position to fulfil his part of the agreement.9

A case which occurred in one of the districts under the Madras Government is as follows: certain slaves endeavoured to vindicate their title to freedom by an appeal to the government. An abstract of the case affords an elucidation of the slave-system of southern India. The subject came before the Board of Revenue in the year 1800, upon the receipt of two memorials, one from the alleged master of the slaves, claiming them as his property; the other from the unhappy individuals who sought to be released from that claim. The petitioner, Venkat Chellum Mudaliyar, represented himself to be a cultivator, holding lands in Errucunum and Ullapollum, two villages in the Madras territories. He stated that a pariah, who and whose family had served him and his ancestors for four generations as agricultural labour, withdrew himself, and entered as cook into the service of Europeans, seducing other members of his family to follow his example; that upon application to Place, the Collector, that gentleman caused the pariahs to be seized, and placed in the custody of the Poligars at Trivatore, until the head-pariahs of Madras investigated in to and adjusted the difference. These head-men accordingly minutely examined the vouchers adduced by the petitioner in support of his claim, and gave their award, namely, that the individuals referred to should, according to ancient custom, serve as slaves to the said Chellum Mudaliyar from generation to generation. This aggrieved slave owner proceeded to state that the slaves thereupon returned for a time to their agricultural duties, but afterwards again withdrew. He then represented, in support of his claim to these men, that it is the invariable custom amongst the native inhabitants of Coro-mandel to possess ‘Punnakaurrahs’, or pariah slaves, without whom no inhabitant could carry on cultivation, except with great impediment and loss. The petitioner, therefore, claimed the slaves, as per the award of the head pariahs, and according to established custom. The award referred to, which is dated in 1796, as well as a previous award dated in 1794, by the head men of the pariahs of Madras, are annexed to the memorial.

The grounds upon which these head men of the caste to which the slaves belonged decided in favour of the master, the following:

The individuals claiming their freedom are stated to have descended, in the fourth generation, from a woman named Taunee, who executed a bond or deed of slavery, whereby she disposed of herself, her daughters, and their posterity to the ancestor of Vencatachellum Moodeliar. The descendants of Taunee did, it is stated, serve the ancestors of Vencatachellum Moodeliar for four generations, receiving ‘batta’ or allowance. (in their judgement several antecedent awards are referred to, one in 1753, and another in 1773, wherein members of the family of Taunee were pronounced to be the slaves of Vencatnchellum and his ancestors). Accordingly the sentence of the arbitrators is, that they return to their master, and that they and their posterity perform slavery to Vencatachellum, from generation to generation, as long as the sun and moon shall endure.

The fact that the British system tolerated all the customary usages of the country pertaining to slavery can be seen from one interesting circular passed by the Bengal Presidency in August 1772 which stated:

Be it therefore resolved that every such criminal so convicted shall be carried to his village, and be there executed as an example to others, and that the village of which he was an inhabitant, shall be fined according to the enormity of the crime, and each family, according to his substance; and that the family of the criminal shall become the slaves of the state, and be disposed of for the general benefit of the people, according to the discretion of the government.10


Let me now give an account of what a respectable British merchant, one Peter Gordon, had to say of the slavery-like condition that the Indian population was treated. Peter Gordon was a revenue-farmer of the ‘Chank Fisheries’ (chanks are the large sea-shells found in profuse quantities in the Gulf of Mannar) and the ‘Chaya-root’ (this root was used to make a red dye similar to madder) which the Madras Government of the East India Company farmed out. This means that he gave a certain lump-some amount to the government, and in lieu of which he was granted a certain years’ lease over a designated area wherein he had an exclusive right to extract those items.

He testified before the highest decision-making body of Great Britain in the following words as to how the East India Company and its officers first forced the native weavers, silk-spinners, salt-diggers, opium and indigo-cultivators, to accept small sums of money as advance payments and in lieu of such debts, they were kept in a state akin to slavery. He enumerated the condition of the salt-diggers or ‘mollungees’, who were kept in such a state by a fictitious debt. I do not consider a man is a debtor, any more than if sixpence is laid at my door and is claimed as a debt. He says of the ordinary Ryots (peasants) as well as workers who worked in the fisheries and salt-works and had no mobility to move from one collectorate to the next, unless they had a chit or pass from the principal collector of the district. He then enumerates the names of these Collectors who were resident in Madura and Tanjore districts, and must necessarily be conversant with this system, which they have carried on for years. If these peasants and workers failed to procure such passes they were claimed back by the revenue-farmers, and the claims were attended to, and they were sent back, quite as much as West Indian negroes are sent from one plantation to another.

He tells of how in 1824, in the island of Saugor (Sagar) at the mouth of the Hooghly, the salt extraction was carried out by forcing them to work for the East India Company’s salt agent by the name of R. Plowdon. That when ten of these workers escaped from the gross exploitation inflicted upon them, the concerned individual tried to bring them back from their new employer by taking the plea that his forceful retention was in full compliance of the legislative enactments of the Bengal Government.

He cites of how the sea-coast police aided by the rapacious Amins and Talukadars of the Revenue Department would at the instance of other rentiers of fisheries force the divers to work for a particular person. For example, the men from Shivaganga did not want to work in the fisheries there but move to Ramnad and work for others in the Ramnad district. The powerful zamindars and native rentiers like the ‘Natacooty Chetties’ would even flog them on their return to their native villages, and in their absence harass their wives. Peter Gordon then expressly says that

I know to a certainty, that the people are not voluntary debtors to the Company, that advances are forced on them, or it is pretended that they have received advances, according to the same system as the soldiers are sometimes recruited in England, but with much more severity.11

Cotton, the Collector of the nearby Tinnevelly district, stated that as per his information, there was no general custom by which the conduct between masters and slaves was governed, other than the fact that the masters had at all times the command of the slave’s labour, who could not work for any other person without their master’s sanction. That it does not seem to be incumbent upon them to afford their slaves any regular maintenance, except when they were employed on his business, and then too, on the least possible scale, that was two seers of paddy a day besides which, after harvest, they were entitled to a very small percentage of the gross produce which amounted to not more than two and three by eight per cent.12 Commissioner Graham in his report to the Board of Revenue had also given very nearly the same figures of one and a half to one-and-three-quarter seers of paddy for a male cherumar, and one-to-one-and-a-quarter seers for a female.13 It is to be noted here that this meagre allowance is also the unhusked rice so that when measured in terms of actual rice grains the extreme inadequacy of the allowance is palpable that these slaves lived on nothing but starvation wages for which they worked from sunrise to sunset. In comparison, the free agricultural labour received nearly twice the allowance provided to slaves, and for which he worked only till noon, these allowances varying from two-and-a-half to three edangallies of paddy.

Slavery was flourishing under the very nose of the East India Company within the four quarters of its own metropolis. One article in a contemporary newspaper writes

how this magnificent capital of our eastern possessions is being disgraced by being a witness to the lowest degradation of the human species. How it is commonly known that the Arab slave dealers arrive here in their ships carrying off many of the inhabitants of Bengal, primarily females, whom they dispose off in Arabia bartering them for African males for the Calcutta market. That nature shudders at the barbarities practised by these abusers to brutalise the human species.14

Sir William Jones in his charge before the Grand Jury at Calcutta, 1785, remarked:

The condition of the slave under our jurisdiction is deplorable and that cruelties are daily practised upon person of the tenderest age and the weaker sex....................that hardly a man or woman exist in this populous town who have not had,at least one slave child purchased for a trifling price. That many of you must have seen large number of boats coming down the Ganges filled with children for open sale at Calcutta.

At another point in this long submission, Sir William Jones observed:

I consider slaves as servants under a contract, whether express or implied, made by themselves or by others authorized by law to contract for them. I have slaves, whom I have rescued from death or misery, but consider then as my other servants, and shall tell them so when they are old enough to comprehend the difference. As such, though I hate the word, the continuation of it can produce but little mischief. That absolute unconditional slavery by which a person becomes the property of another, like a horse or oxen, is happily unknown to the laws of England, and that no human law could give it a just sanction.15


Indians were duped into bondage by several European slave traders and sold off to persons in Mauritius, St Helena, Australia, Sri Lanka and Malay peninsula. It is indeed remarkable how seldom these Europeans were prosecuted and then too the quantum of punishment was incommensurate with the gravity of their crimes. One Danish slave-dealer by the name of Peter Horribaw purchased 150 native Bengalis at Fulta and sent them by sea in a ship under the English flag to be sold as slaves in Ceylon where the island’s Governor, then under Dutch control, Van der Grave, refused him permission to land, but he was somehow able to land his human stock in some other part of the island, and got the best value for his slaves. It appears that this person unabashedly returned to the Indian territories of the East India Company where he was arrested and imprisoned for a period of three months and asked to give a surety of five thousand rupees for his good conduct for the next three years.16 These persons made great use of the general appalling levels of poverty in the Indian countryside where in some part or the other an ensuing famine would so compel the already indigent peasant population to sell off their children. In 1785 and 1787, some Portuguese took advantage of a scarcity of grain in Bengal to purchase children and sell them into bondage in Calcutta, Chinsurah and other settlements. These were all from the age of two to six years and intercepted by the Calcutta Police who sent them under escort to the Collector of Dhaka to be returned back to their parents.17

From the reports which were communicated by the British political agent at Kathiawar to the Bombay Government in the year 1836 it becomes apparent that there was a flourishing import of African slaves into Western India via the maritime routes, particularly along the coasts of the native states of Kathiawar and of Sindh, as well as in the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Daman and Diu.18 One of such official reports contain a correspondence from the Rana of Porbandar whereby the Rana states that slaves were being imported all along the Kutch coast at numerous bandars (ports),all of which are frequented by the Arab vessels or dhows but that these were in no way interfered with except at his port.19 The Rana was agitated since three slave vessels with 79 slaves onboard were seized by the marine forces of the English at a place called Macula falling within his dominions. These slaves seized were all Africans comprising of 49 boys and 30 girls, the former aged from four to ten years, the latter from five to fifteen years. These miserable African children had been concealed within boxes and at other secret places within the holds of the slaving vessels and in a state of complete nudity. Not only were young African boys and girls imported as slaves from Africa but native Indian girls from five-to-12 years of age were exported, particularly in years of scarcity. These slaves were brought by merchants called as the Wadee Arabs from the Swahili or East African coast and carried to the various ports of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and western India. The tiny Portuguese island of Diu was a major importing point and six to seven ships plied slaves between it and Mozambique, and from where they would be sent to the port of Gogah on the mainland or to the southern port cities of Bombay and Surat.20

Along East Africa, the major points of slave embarkation were the ports of the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, namely, Quellimane and Ibo, and the tiny islands to its north such as Zanjibar, and those of the Lamu archipelago. However, the actual slaving points for these enslaved Africans lay around the vast hinterland around lake Nyasa and Soudan from whence they were captured in slave-hunts of the most macabre kind conducted by the military contingents of states like that of Egypt. A part of these depredations was sold off to Arab merchants who marched them off to Kilwa, their first point of embarkation, from whence they were then sent to the isle of Zanjibar. This short sea voyage was nothing short of a harrowing experience for the enslaved Africans who were in to leaky and unseaworthy ships or boats, devoid of even a sufficient quantity of food and water as would suffice for a voyage favoured with fair wind, whereas if the weather be becalmed, then the horrors of starvation followed speedily, with the dead and dying thrown into the sea by their merciless owners.

Thus, these negroes from the interior regions of East Africa were brought before the custom house of the Zanjibar as not more than living skeletons. It was not unusual to see these sick and feeble slaves lying for days before the Zanjibar custom house, because the merchants who brought them would not pay the import duty on their account unless they had made it certain that the enfeebled and sickly slaves would be able to live it out.21 The most revealing part in this whole vile transaction, and which indicates the intricate webs of mercantile capital involved in the slave trade spanning two continents, comes out when one gets to know that in this far off tiny island of the Indian Ocean, Gujarati baniyas from the Kutch region were actively involved as they were the principal officers who managed the custom house of Zanjibar as the taxes had been farmed out to them by the rulers of Zanjibar. These Gujarati merchants had extensive mercantile and banking interests in Kutch, Surat, Bombay and East Africa, enjoying covert British protection, though as residents of a protected states under the East India Company, they were as much amenable to British law as any British subject who might be found associated with the slave trade.22

On June 6, 1850, as per the orders of Commodore Wyvill, the commanding officer of the British naval forces stationed off the African coast, Commander Bunce, escorted with a strongly armed contingent of eighty naval men, embarked on a slave destroying expedition, entered the river Mozamba, which lay in a territory to the north of Mozambique and falling within the dominions of the Imam of Muscat. A great number of Arabs were collected about, some in the bush in all directions, and some in the village, in parties of tens and twenties. In all the commanding officer, Captain Bunce, believed that the Arab chief had collected about 200 men, armed either with muskets and others with bows and arrows. The British naval force used port-fires to set ablaze all the barracoons, sheds, kraals etc. which were used for the lodging of the slaves and the whole place went up in flames.

A dhow, of about 100 tons and upwards, measuring 62 feet in length, 18 feet in breadth, and 13 feet in depth, fitted for carrying slaves, was concealed in the mangrove bushes. The slaving establishment run by these Gujarati baniyas at Keonga were a very large one, capable of containing at least 4000 slaves. From the extensive and complete nature of this slave-establishment, a very large number of slaves must have been exported from it, both in the slave-trade to the northward, and to the Portuguese settlements to the southward, whence they were shipped off to Brazil. The Banyan who was guiding the British naval party declared that the barracoons at Masani and Keonga were the only slave-establishments on the coast, so that the destruction of both in so surprising a manner would not only be an enormous pecuniary loss to the dealers, but a singular blow to the slave trade along the eastern coast of Africa.23

From several papers taken from the Banyan prisoners, consisting of accounts and inventories, it would appear that the property lost and sacrificed consequent to the destruction of the barracoons was something enormous. The losses of just one of the Gujarati merchants, Luckoo Kellangee, alone amounted to no less a sum than 60,000 dollars; and that goods in the shape of piece-goods, muskets, beads, brass wire, and powder, amounting in value to about 40,000 or 50,000 dollars, belonging to the merchants at Zanzibar, were stored in the barracoons and destroyed. It is difficult to describe the sensation caused at Zanzibar by the destruction of these slave establishments. The Banyans were perfectly paralysed as these goods were supplied on credit, and, as is often the case, the payment depending on the successful termination of the speculation. The direct losses, of the property destroyed of those actually engaged in the slave trade, amounted, at least, to 150,000 dollars.24

Bonded Labour in India

The cycle of indebtedness arises out of the glaring inequalities in the ownership of land—a primary income-generating asset in the agrarian-based economy of rural India. In over-populated States like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, one finds that the bulk of agrarian land is owned by certain upper-caste landlords, such as the Bhumihaars, spread across Bihar and eastern UP, many of whom own thousands of acres each, whereas millions of others belonging to the Scheduled Castes, who have become landless, are forced to work as sharecroppers—that too on a social custom based on oral contracts. In large parts of rural India, these landowners also perform the role of moneylenders giving out loans from as small as rupees five hundreds to tens of thousands. Right from the days of the British yoke, the Indian peasant and agricultural labourers were caught into a debt–trap caused by stagnant or miserly upward movement of wages combined with either rising level of prices of essential foodgrains which made him perpetually indebted to the village moneylenders or traders. The various administrative reports compiled by the Collectors and Commissioners were replete with such descriptions. For the period of 1872-73, a report from the Patna division says:

The daily rates of unskilled work, Except for harvest and sowing season, range between one to one and a half-anna. In the district of Gaya, the agricultural labourer is worse off than anywhere else in the Patna division. He is paid in grains to the tune of two to three seers which is of coarse variety and just enough to just support him. The smaller zamindars are also very oppressive.25

Similar administrative reports from Bhagalpur and Monghyr districts tell us of how the wages were even lower than in Bengal. The Commissioner, Wolseley, said:

The money wages of the field-labourers in Tirhut (North Bihar) had not risen for the past sixty years, though the prices of foodgrains had. Even in times of plenty, after paying the rent and numerous cess of the landlord, very little is left to them for their own support so that, the failure of a single crop is bound to cause distress, particularly,in the districts where rice is grown as it is very susceptible to drought.26

In Champaran district, 75 per cent of the cultivators were in debt, the greater number of Ryots were insufficiently fed and their average holdings of five acres were not sufficient to pay the grain advances granted by the mahajan at rates of twenty to twentyfive per cent, pay the rent to the zamindars and yet maintain their families. This indebted tenant, thus, lived on the verge of starvation and thus dependent totally on the mahajan to tide over his difficulties.27 So in such circumstances, the hapless peasant and agrarian labourers would have no choice but to become trapped sooner or later in a relationship of bondage whereby he and his family’s entire labour would be controlled by the creditor/landlord for an indefinite period. It was this vicious cycle which forced free peasant families to become bonded labourers called as ‘Kamias’ in Bihar and Harwahas (ploughmen). In UP, a British administrator, D.H.E. Sunder, in one of his reports wrote that

Kamias plough and do all the fieldwork for their masters for which they are paid in kind. If they fail to turn up, they are paid nothing. They are also forced to perform all kind of Begar work relating to the carriage of loads, and for which they are paid an abysmally low rate of one pice per mile which was 1/112 of a rupee. Sometimes, they were not at all paid for this kind of work.28

In the Revised District Gazetteer of Palamau, 1907, one finds the following information on these bonded labourers:

The kamiya is practically a serf who binds himself to serve his master in return for a money advance. He is obliged to work for his master as long as the loan remains unpaid. In return he is provided with 5 kathas of rice-land and wages in kind at the village rates.

This wage for a full day’s labour comprised of just two to three seers of whatever foodgrains the master may find convenient or if in money it amounted to six annas per day plus a little gram flour. This system of kamiauti was at its worst little better than slavery.29 In the eastern districts of UP, there was an equivalent system known as ‘Harwahagiri’. There is a very interesting text of a written bond which a Gorakhpur based Indigo planter, Listor, claimed he had in possession. In this, a person called Abheeman Kurmee for a sum of fifty one rupees executed a servitude bond. The text, as translated by Listor read like this:

I, Abhimaan Kurmee, of my own free will and accord, execute this ‘Harwahabandhee’ or absolute bondage which will have force over my whole family for the driving of a plough, and remaining always at hand to perform every kind of work that may occur. That if I remain absent for a day, then I be held responsible for the payment to the extent of a rate of gold, and if I go anywhere in the manner of flight, then let my family be seized.30

Usually such petty loans, many times as low as from Rs 50 to Rs 100 were required by these labourers on occasions such as the marriage or death of any of their family members. But even such small loans the labourers would not get in the villages, unless they agreed to serve the landlords as bond servants till the loan was repaid. The labourer was then reduced to the position of a serf of the landlord. This serf labour was no better than slave labour. It used to be attached to the land, and changed ownership, along with it. This is what the Bombay Census Report of 1921 had to say in connection with the Hali labour:

They are not employed at their own convenience on wages but are maintained as permanent estate servants by the larger landlords—furnished by these with home and food, and not regarded as in a position to resign service and seek any other occupation. There is virtually no difference between the position of these Halis and the slaves of the American Plantations prior to the Civil War, except that the Courts would not recognise the rights of their master as absolute over person and services. But in this country where more probably than in others—the rich have a better chance in the Courts than the poor, this difference diminishes in importance. We might describe this situation by saying that these Halis are free men de jure, but serfs or slaves de facto.31

Forced labour in the agency areas of the Madras Province falls under two distinct heads: (1) Vethi and (2) Gothi. The Muttadars (a land-proprietor designated by the State as a collector of revenue) was as a matter of right, entitled to Vethi (Veth Begar) from the village folks under their jurisdiction at the rate of one person for each hut. The number of villages under a Muttadar ranges from ten to twenty. The labourer must work for the Muttadar, whenever he needs assistance, but the number of days on which he has to work for him in a year, does not appear to have been fixed. The Muttadar, in return, gives the labourer some food, but no wages.32 The exploitation of the tribal population by the Forest and Revenue Department was rampant throughout India. Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf in his Tribal Hyderabad refers to the Gond region in Hyderabad state, where the aborigines were forced to work ten days every year in teak plantations and to bring with them their own ploughs and bullocks; and for which they were forcibly recruited by the local village guards, and received no payments for their work.33


Even now, well into the twentyfirst century, the illiterate and poverty-stricken tribals are exploited in a manner which shocks anyone with an iota of humanity. Herein are nearly 10,000 bonded labourers (many of them illiterate Irula tribal families) in the paddy processing units of rice-mills in Red hills (which is thirty to forty miles from the capital of Madras, a major Indian metropolis).

The working condition of these Irula tribal workers is even worse than that of the plantation slaves in the New World. They are made to work to repay the debt incurred by parents, which might be as paltry as Rs 100-300, and keep on multiplying to Rs 50,000 over succeeding generations. They work from 11 pm till 6 pm on the next day, and hardly get any sleep. Wages are paid every four days, at the rate of Rs 8 per bag, roughly as Rs 240 for four persons for four days. This works out to Rs 15 for 19 hours of hard labour, which is in violation of the minimum wages fixed by the State Government’s Labour Department for rice mill workers (Rs 84 for eight hours of work). Marriages and deliveries take place inside the work premise. When a worker dies, the funeral can take place only after the work is over at 6 pm. Incidents of physical beating, locking them up, sexual harassments of women workers occur frequently.34

Despite such blatant violations of all norms of humanity, the rice-mill owners of the Red hills areas had such an iron-grip over all aspects of their movements, that these extremely indigent, completely unorganised, totally illiterate, and timid community had been silently undergoing this torment for decades, and several generations had passed their lives in what was nothing but the most abject slavery. It was only when in the nineties, an organisation called Sarpam Thozillar Irular Sangham was formed to generate some awareness amongst these brutalised people as to their rights, that a small beginning was made. As per the information received from the Government of Tamil Nadu, 372 labourers were released from bondage from the district of Thiruvallur including Tiruttani and Ponneri of Red hill area from 1997 till September 30, 2004.

If one goes by the official reports, then the situation of bonded labour in India is not at all alarming, as from 1976, when the Bonded Labour Abolition Act came into effect, till March 2007, the total bonded labourers which the various departments of the government could identify were as follows: 289,839 identified and liberated in thirtyone years of the operation of the law, giving a total annual identification and release rate of between nine to ten thousand per annum is shocking. It shows that the Government of India wants to act like the proverbial blind men and deny the true reality by accepting only what they want to see. As the National Commission on Labour states, in just the unorganised mining sector of merely one State, Rajasthan, the number of bonded child labour came to sixty per cent of the total number of children who formed fifteen per cent of the total mining labour in the State, thereby giving a figure of 180,000 bonded child labour in the mining sector of Rajasthan, and considering that there are several other major mining States like Karnataka, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Haryana, one could well realise that the figures would run into millions for all the different sectors of the unorganised economy, even if we leave the agriculture sector alone. Yet, below is what the Ministry of Labour tells us is the incidence of bonded labour reported as from October 1997-2007.

Bonded Labour Identified and Reported for the whole of India by Government from 1997-2007

Year Incidence of

Bonded Labour

1997-1998 6000

1998-1999 5960

1999-2000 8195

2000-2001 5256

2001-2002 3929

2002-2003 2198

2003-2004 2465

2004-2005 866

2005-2006 397

2006-2007 197

2007-31/10/2007 088

(Ministry of Labour, Annual Report 2007-2008, Table 9.2,
p. 81)

The Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976 provides for the abolition of the system of bonded labour. It freed unilaterally all the bonded labourers from bondage with simultaneous liquidation of their debts. The Act does away with every obligation of a bonded labourer to repay any bonded debt; it also dispenses with the future liability of repaying a bonded debt. The law provides that (a) no suit or other proceedings shall be instituted in any Civil Court for the recovery of any bonded debt, (b) every attachment made before the commencement of the Act for the recovery of any bonded debt shall stand vacated, and (c) such movable property shall be restored to the bonded labourer. The District and Sub-Divisional Magistrates have been entrusted with certain duties/responsibilities towards implementation of statutory provisions. Under Section-13 of the Act, Vigilance Committees are required to be constituted at the district and sub-divisional level for implementation of the provisions of the law. They are composite bodies with representatives from different cross-sections of the society and have a life of two years. However, the kind of work done by the Vigilance Committees is more of a formality, as their members hardly have the will-power, inclination, commitment required to relentlessly pursue the identification of a problem which plagues every nook and corner of the country. Their failure can be seen from the very fact that whereas they could not track more than 2465 bonded-labourers throughout the country, there were more than ten thousand Irular labourers living as slaves, and it was only in 2004, when the Sarpam Irular Sangham sent petitions to the NHRC, Bandhua Mukti Morcha and other reputed organisations, that our Members of Parliament got to know, for the first time in their lives, of an abominable crime being practised under the very nose of one of India’s largest cities, and the capital of one of the most advanced and progressive States of India.

Total Number of Bonded Labour Identified and Released from the passing of the
Act till 31/03/2007

Name of Identified Rehabilita Central

the State and ted Assistance

Released upto provided

upto 31.03.2007 (Rs in lakhs)

31.03.2007 upto


Andhra 37,988 31,534 850.00


Bihar 13,792 12,974 403.38

Karnataka 63,437 57,185 1578.18

Madhya 13,125 12,200 164.49


Orissa 50,029 46,901 903.34

Rajasthan 7,488 6,331 72.42

Tamil Nadu 65,573 65,573 1661.94

Maharashtra 1,404 1,325 10.10

Uttar Pradesh 28,489 28,489 603.72

Kerala 823 710 15.56

Haryana 582 80 4.03

Gujarat 64 64 1.01

Arunachal 3526 2,992 568.48


Chhattisgarh 124 124 12.40

Punjab 69 69 6.90

Uttaranchal 5 5 0.50

Jharkhand 196 196 19.60

West Bengal 125 125 6.21

TOTAL 2,86,839 2,66,877 6882.26

(From Annual Report of the Ministry of Labour and Employment,

2007-2008, Chapter 9, p. 81, Table 9.2)

In 1991, a fact-finding committee appointed by an order of the Supreme Court of India found a large number of children, as young as six to nine years old, working as bonded labourers on carpet-weaving looms in Uttar Pradesh. The Indian carpet industry is widely dispersed over a large geographical area since the public scrutiny that the industry has received in recent years has caused it increasingly to scatter the loom sheds to more rural locations. Small production units typically employing less than ten people make up an estimated 95 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s production. These small units are exempt from labour laws applying to registered factories in the formal sector. Bonded children in the carpet industry are often recruited from the neighbouring States of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh by recruiting agents or organised gangs. Their parents, low-caste, poor peasants or landless labourers, are given a cash advance ranging from 600 to 2800 rupees. This practice is generally institutionalised in cases where children are procured by recruiters and the children whose parents take advances are required to continue working for the same employer until the advance has been repaid. The amount of time it takes to repay the loan can extend up to five or six years, during which time the child remains bonded. In some cases employers take advantage of the poverty of the family and offer large loans to parents against their children’s future labour knowing that the parents will never be able to repay the debt. The worst conditions occur in production units that rely on migrant child-labourers who have been recruited or lured from their villages. The SACCS estimates that over 70 per cent of the children working in the carpet industry are migrant children from neighbouring states, the majority of whom receive no wages.


As late as April 2005, the report by a fact-finding team visiting the mines of Bellary and Hospet in the southern State of Karnataka saw that a minimum of two hundred thousand children were being made to live and work in extremely hazardous conditions. These were all involved in activities ranging digging the top-soil, breaking, sieving and grading, transporting and in all these activities they did not have even the rudimentary safety equipment prescribed by law.

Most of the mine-workers belong to the scheduled-caste and are either landless labourers or marginal farmers whose lands had become unproductive as a consequence of these rampant mining activities. The mining sites are filled with the camps of these workers. Their living conditions were terrible. The abodes of these men, women and children comprised of just plastic sheets spread out over a bamboo structure, four feet wide and four feet tall-such that a person if he slept would have his feet dangling out of it, and having not enough space to incorporate all the members of the mining family. Though legally, only the adult members would be recruited as daily or casual labourers, the low wages and quantum of work entailed that everyone, inclusive of the young children would have to work to eke out this living. The female members would be provided with iron hammers and a sieve. The adult male and even boys as young as ten years would perform the digging work for extracting the rocks rich in iron-ore and this would then be broken into small lumps which would then be crushed into fine powder and then sieved.35

Five-to-six-year-old Gangamma, Ishwaramma and Shekamma spend between six-to-eight hours a day hammering away through pile of iron stock so that they could build up their pile of iron ore lumps. The pile at the end of the day and the number of the iron basins they fill will determine how much their families will earn. Sitting hunched over hot ferrous ore, chipping away steadily at them with a hammer can never be child’s play. When it is safest, it is painful for the shoulders and the back, the wrist joints and arms hurt while the little hands are filled with bruises and blisters. At its hazardous worst, this occupation causes severe injuries and even results in maiming and death as heavy stones fall or the hammer in tired hands misses its aim.

The fact-finding team found that in the two thousand hectares of land which they could visit, the average density of workers was, at least, 100 workers per acre—nearly half of whom were children, so that there would be four hundred thousand labourers engaged, of which two hundred thousand would be children When the members of the fact-finding team asked them as to why they did such work, Gangamma’s mother says that for three weeks their family had no proper food to eat and so she and her three children migrated. Even the supply of drinking water is not seen as the contractor’s responsibility. He supplies plastic sheets and bamboo so that the labour can construct small domes of about five feet in width and four-to-five feet in height at the highest point and as many as even 10 persons occupy these temporary shelters.36

The immensity of the exploitation can be gauged from the fact that even an official document such as the Report of the Labour Commission enumerates that Rajasthan alone has about two million mine workers working in the unorganised sector throughout the State. That 15 per cent of them are children, and about 22,000 of them are in the age group of 10-12 years (60 per cent of these children are bonded labourers); 37 per cent of the total mine workers are women, and more than 80 per cent of all the mine workers are in the age group of 16-40 years, that is, in the prime of their age. Only seven per cent of mine workers are in the age group of above 40 years. Most of them become unfit for heavy work after 40 years of age. The rule of the mines is ‘no work, no wage’. Almost all workers work for eight hours every day.37


Another very important industry in the unorganised sector is the beedi (leaf cigarette) industry. According to some estimates, 325,000 children alone work in state of bondage in this industry, primarily in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and the Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh.38 The leaf-cigarettes are basically cheap kind of cigarettes devoid of any filter, filled with crude, unrefined tobacco. They are made from tendu leaves primarily from the deciduous forests of Madhya Pradesh and supplied to various parts of the country. Children as young as ten years old are forced to become so adept in the extremely monotonous, repetitive and tedious task of rolling that they can roll up to 1500 to 2000 such leaf-cigarettes a day. They are forced to work from ten to fourteen hours a day, six and a half days a week. In the beedi industry, bondage is a cyclical pattern. For example, the entire childhood of thousands of children is spent as bonded labourers, then as young adults they are able to get free(not because their masters get compassionate) but because with time and experience their productivity decreases, the master knowing that he can get more work from a freshly recruited bonded child. For a girl child, her parents often purchase her freedom, prior to marriage, by bonding one of her younger siblings, yet, after marriage, growing expenditures, decreasing earning powers again force them into taking loans from the proprietors of the beedi-rolling units, the latter who then forces the children to perform the same labour regimen which the parents had themselves performed a generation back.

A look at the production and earnings of bonded beedi rollers demonstrates just how lucrative this arrangement is for the bond master. Whether they are 500 rupees or 4000 rupees, these loans must be paid back in one lump-sum payment. The child will not be released otherwise, no matter how many thousands of rupees her labour brings to the agent over the years. The lump-sum payback requirement is an extremely harsh condition for the poor, and difficult to meet. Often the only way a parent can come up with that kind of money is through a loan with another agent or by bonding another child. Bonded beedi rollers are paid between 20 and 30 per cent of the wages they would be entitled to on the open market. The remaining 70 to 80 percent of the value of their wages is kept by the agents, nominally as interest. This system results in effective annual interest rates ranging from 300 to 500 per cent. The meagre daily wages of the children are further reduced by “penalties”, often bogus, for sloppy work or other alleged infractions of workplace rules.

Kalidasbhai, thirteen years old, told Human Rights Watch that she earned ten rupees a day for rolling 2000 beedis, possibly netting his agent more than fifty rupees daily. This is enough money to clear the original debt of 2000 rupees in a month-and-a-half. Instead, Kalidasbhai is in his seventh year of working for the bond master. (Thus she has already paid more than 100,000 rupees to her bond-master in lieu of the original debt of a petty two-thousand rupees, and, yet, is not liberated from the clutches of these rapacious monsters.) Twelve-year-old Raju was pledged at the age of eight years for a rupees 1500 loan. He testified that he rolled 1000 beedis a day for which he earned just six rupees. In 1995, as per the minimum wages act applicable, he was to receive rupees 31, so that the beedi owner profited to the extent of 25 rupees for every day of this child. Thus, in just two months, Raju would have paid off his loan but Raju was made to work for four years during which he provided his employer with a clear of profit of forty thousand rupees.39


In the silk industry, an estimated 60 to 100,000 are working as bonded labourers in Karnataka (a major centre for silkworm rearing and silk-yarn production). As per the estimates of the State Government, most of these are Dalits. The weavers of the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh produce some of the most exquisite silk saris along with their brethren in the Kanchipuram district of South India which fetch high prices and,yet, most of them are bonded for life for small sums of money ranging from a thousand to five thousand rupees. The greatest concentration of silk weavers is found in and around the cities of Kanchipuram, in the southern State of Tamil Nadu, and Varanasi, in the northern State of Uttar Pradesh. Both cities are famous for their fine hand-woven saris. There are 50,000 to 60,000 silk handlooms in Tamil Nadu, and nearly 130,000 in Uttar Pradesh. In Kanchipuram, 40,000 to 50,000 children work in bondage on the silk handlooms. In Varanasi, approximately 85,000 children work as bonded labourers on the handlooms. Most of the children work as assistants to the adult master weavers. Children commonly enter the hand weaving industry between the ages of six and nine and continuing working in that occupation their entire lives. In Varanasi, advances reportedly range from 2,000 to 5,000 rupees, while in Kanchipuram the advances are the highest of any industry, with children as young as six bringing in advances of 10,000 rupees and older children being traded for advances of up to 15,000.

The exploitative character of the silk handloom weaving industry is accentuated by the extremely hierarchical pyramidical nature of the industry. At the bottom is the child labourer, who assists the master weavers. In terms of power to control their own work and negotiate wages, the master weavers rank above the child assistants, but barely. The weavers work extremely hard for long hours and low pay—thirty-to-forty rupees per day is the typical wage scale. Frequently, they are themselves bonded. The next rung up is the owner of the loom. The power and wealth of loom owners varies greatly. Silk-weaving “factories” are plentiful in the Kanchipuram area. These factories may have anywhere from twentyfive to several hundred looms—the bigger the factory, the more powerful the owner, and the more likely he is to offer hefty advances in order to secure his workers. In Kanchipuram, there were factory owner who had four hundred looms, with one thousand employees to work them. Half of these employees were children. This man, the richest and most powerful in his village, commonly gave advances of 10,000 rupees or more, had the debtors sign a contract acknowledging this debt, and then used local police power to enforce the contract. Above the loom owners is the buyer or merchant’s agent. This man advances the materials and tells the owner what designs to produce. In some cases, as for example with the wealthy owner of a large number of looms, it is the owner himself who procures the materials and decides which patterns to produce. In these cases, the two roles of owner and buyer are combined into one. Then at the very apex is the merchant who would own an exporting house, and who would have the financial and organizational setup to purchase materials on a large scale, and the financial depth to provide the necessary quantum of advances which are distributed by the men at the lower points of the hierarchy, with each one at the higher rung exploiting the ones below him.


In the brick-making industry, the workers are first tempted by providing them with loans ranging from two to three thousand to as high as twenty thousand rupees. These sums are essential to attract migrant labour from far-off places. Generally, special recruitment agents who often had previously worked in the same brick-kilns are used. In north India these recruiting agents are called ‘Sardars’ and ‘Sardarnis’. For recruiting thousands of indigent tribal girls from Jharkhand the female agent recruiters called ‘Sardarnis’ are more in prevalence. These agents are provided with large sums of money by the proprietors of brick-kilns and are given a commission on every labourer so brought. The tribals are seen to work on brick-kilns thousands of kilometres from their native places in Punjab, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, and even as remote states as Nagaland, Manipur etc. Those who are badly in need of loans are packed off in waiting trucks like cattle for slaughter. Once a family accepts a loan, it is not easy to redeem them as the wages are low and conditions of work long and arduous.

The wages in most of the brickyards are paid on a piece-rate system in terms of a fixed sum per thousand of baked bricks made by a family unit. A portion of these wages is automatically deducted to offset the advance payment at the time of recruit. If by the end of the season, a family is unable to make such a number of bricks as would render them a weekly sum large enough to pay-off the loans by the end of the season then they would be forced to return the next year. Most of the families are caught in this debt-trap,and to move out of it, all the members of a family, inclusive of young members, are forced to work for ten or twelve hours. The adult workers work for as much as eighteen to twenty hours a day preferring to work throughout the night so as to escape from the high day temperatures. The payments made to the workers varies from State to State and divergences arise,even within the same district. It also varies based upon whether the task performed is that of cutting the earth, the moulding of bricks called ‘pathera’, the laying and firing of the bricks inside the furnace, or the loading and unloading of bricks. The payment for loading activities varies from Rs 40 to 60 per thousand bricks. In comparision, those involved in the task of moulding bricks could get from between 100-150 rupees per 1000 bricks. In Gaya, however, the payment for loading activities, especially for the tribal workers, was Rs 25 per thousand bricks. Tribal populations, especially women and children, are in any case earning less than Rs 40. This is particularly true of Palamau labourers from Jharkhand who are being employed at the brick kilns of Saran district (Bihar). The severe exploitation of tribal workers is a marked feature of this industry. In many units, an entire family of four to five people were paid a measly sum of just 4000 rupees for an entire season’s work wherein they were all working 14 to 15 hours by day.

The act of defalcation engaged by the middlemen or Sardars and Sardarnis leads to a further exploitation of the workers. One brick-kiln owner lamented that he had given 25,000 rupees to a contractor to bring the labour from Katihar. He had a contract for 15 workers, but only six have come to work. The employer was now not giving the full wages to the workers; a way to recover the advance amount lost. The position of middlemen is very attractive since on supplying the requisite number of workers they get a commission of rupees five to ten per thousand bricks made per worker provided by them. Thus, if one takes, that an average, a worker in a twelve to fourteen hour daily shift produces 500 bricks, it comes out to fifteen thousand per month, or sixty thousand bricks per season per worker, allowing the middlemen to pocket a clean six hundred rupees for each worker he is able to bring. In fact, there is a general usage amongst owners not to pay the labourer for fifty out of the one thousand bricks, which at the rate of Rs 100-120 per thousand, comes to be a deduction of five to six rupees per thousand which is made under the plea of faulty bricks, or some fictitious expenditure which the owners say they expended upon the workers, but it seems that this could be away to offset the commission which the kiln owners are having to pay to the middlemen, which means that it is in reality the workers who are paying the heavy commission made over to the middlemen.

Generally, these middlemen are of two types: (a) professional labour-recruiters; (b) the middlemen-worker. The professional recruiters are able to work on a large scale, and have a wide network by tapping which they are able to supply several dozens of brick-kilns spread across a district or districts. The middlemen-workers are those who themselves had been brick-kiln workers for several years, and in the course of working for a given kiln owner for a long time, and having established a reputation of being productive workers, are allowed to embark on this lucrative work, provided they are able to bring workers who are docile, hard-working, and not prone to dissent. These middlemen-workers depend upon their own clansmen, members of their own caste in their village, or their own relatives far tapping the seasonal labour supply. The relationship is a concatenation of dependency. The worker is dependent upon the Sardars and the Sardars to the owners. These workers are landless agricultural labourers or tribals, who eke out a day to day subsistence and require periodical doses of credit to survive, and this credit is provided by the middle-man, with whom they have entered into a working relationship. These extremely indigent workers and their peasants are dependent upon the Sardar to provide them with advances during the working season, since payments are made in most brick-kilns as a lump sum at the end of the season.

It is this nature of payment which catches them all into a debt-trap as the middlemen charge interests for sums advanced beyond a stipulated amount. Since the wages per worker are themselves low, and in addition, numerous vexatious deductions are made, many workers find, that by the end of the season, their interest obligations have absorbed most of their meagre earnings, and now to eke out a living for the remaining off-season months, they again approach these middlemen/ Sardars, who are only too willing to oblige, since they know, that the worker has now become bonded to him. Such labourers and their family can now not migrate to any other place, or dispose of their labour to any other middle-man, until they dispose off their accumulated loan. They have to come back again to work in the same brick-kiln, and now at even more disadvantaged position, since, under the pretext of their accumulated interest payments, their ‘piece-rate’ wages shall be further depressed, due to which, after each iterative cycle, their financial condition will deteriorate, their loan dependency increase, their ability to pay out of current earnings decrease, till a stage would arrive when they would become the ‘bandhak’ of the sardar and his owner, and then they would be no way out of this deadly vortex, but to spend their entire lives in working for the same master, and pledging the future of their children, for the debt does not cease with the contracting debtor but passes on to successive generations.

The following cases are also typical of the economic exploitation of the tribal workers. In Benares, a worker involved in loading was to be paid 32 rupees/1000 bricks for loading, and
Rs 22/1000 bricks for unloading, and, yet, he didn’t get anything at the end of the season, but the travelling fare to Ranchi. In another instance an Oraon tribal from Gumla, Jharkhand had earned Rs 5000 for the whole season, but only half was given at the end of the season along with the train fare to Gumla.


In the preceding pages, I have tried to cover various aspects of two major forms of servility, namely, slavery proper in nineteenth century British India and the various manifestations of debt-bondage or bonded labour in various sectors of the Indian economy. The intention was to delineate the gross exploitation suffered by our poverty-stricken peasants and landless agrarian labourers, whose plight did not end with the de jure abolition of slavery in 1842, as it did not end with the abolition of debt-bondage in 1976. What the abolition of slavery in British India did was to end the open sale and purchase of human beings, and to put the slaves legally at par with the rest of the population. Yet, on the other hand, it accentuated the numbers of those whom we now call as ‘Bandhua Mazdoors’.

Thus, only the form of servility changed, and millions of our indigent proletariat, were living a life of utter debasement, exploitation and misery. The condition of the Kamiyas of Jharkhand and Bihar, of the Harwaha of Eastern UP, of the Siris of Haryana and Punjab, the Halis of Gujarat, the Warlis and Katkaris of Maharashtra, the Bhils and Gonds of Western and Central India, the Niyadis, Puliyans, the Adiyans, Kattunayakans and Malaseers of Kerala, the Pariahs and Irulas of Tamil Nadu were and still are, well into the twentyfirst century, living a life, which is no different from that of a chattel-slave, having no control whatsoever of their labour, or the fruits of their labour, dignity of life, and in many cases, in terms of material comforts of life, even worse off than the negro slaves of the Caribbean isles and ante-bellum USA. The only redeeming feature of the bonded labour is that, unlike slavery in the former regions, they do not have to work under the constant tortures and whippings of slave-drivers and overseers. This is why some scholars call debt-bondage as mitigated slavery; however, the numerous reports from reputed social organisations and NGOs like Bandhua Mukti Morcha, South Asian Coalition against Child labour, Sankalp etc. which have been incessantly working amongst the bonded children engaged in carpet weaving in Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Allahabad, belie our hopes even on this count.

The Government of India and the governments of various States, particularly my own State of Uttar Pradesh, have now for the past decade and more vociferously been in a denial mode, and urging their bureaucracy, which even otherwise was ill-equipped to identify this evil, to behave in a similar manner. Thus, as I have shown from a report of the Ministry of Labour, the tracking of new bonded labour has diminished from a few hundred in 1997-98 to a mere eightyeight in 2007-2008; the Ministry pats itself on the back, that as a result of increased vigilance, the incidence of bonded labour has virtually died-off. However, the logic behind their patently absurd argument and criminal neglect is ringing loud and clear. For, just as I was finishing this article, I read a report on the website of the National Human Rights Commission informing that towards the latter part of February, in the district of Jhajjar in Haryana, in just four brick-kilns, more than a fifty adult bonded labourers, and above 140 of their families, all of whom were from my State of Uttar Pradesh, were released with the cooperation of the local Magistrate. It is thus high time that the Central Government and the States wake up from their deliberate slumber and accept that tens of millions of our population (at the most optimistic estimate) are leading a life of virtual slavery, where under hellish conditions their lives are being brutalised day in and day out, so that the profits of our capitalists may be augmented. Unless we accept the malady, its cure would also be piece-meal, tentative, and solutions like the rehabilitation packages offered more of an eye-wash than an actual remedy. Members of the Parliament of India and the government of the day owe it to this nation, which elects them thus enabling them to enjoy their fat perquisites, to sincerely work towards the elimination of these servile forms of labour, and their proper rehabilitation and reintegration with the mainstream.


1. The difference between slavery and villeinage lies in that in the former, the slave had no rights not only against his owner, but also against the entire world, and even the courts completely negated his human personality, and he could bring no suit or claim for any injury, mutilation, punishment effected upon him as the slave was incompetent to be a witness in any civil or criminal matter. The slave was truly a beast, a part of his master’s moveable property, and subject to seizure by law for his master’s bankruptcy, and sold under Venditioni. The Villein or Serf, though practically all but a slave in relation to his master, as he had no control over the disposal of his own or his family’s labour, or the fruits of his labour, and even the most personal decisions as his right to marriage was subject to his master’s approval, possessed all the rights of a free man as far as the rest of the world was concerned. The condition of the Russian Serf till 1861 is well known, and his appalling poverty and servile status have been poignantly described by writers like Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and others.

2. Reply of Colonel James Welsh, Madras establishment in Appendix (Public-I) in A Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company, November 3, 1833.

3. Reply of T.H. Baber, ibid., Para 16, pp. 428, 1833.

4. Report of the EIC’s resident in Travancore, General Walker, in Slavery in India Documents, folio 866.

5. Colonel Welsh’s Military Reminiscences, Volume 2,
p. 111.

6. Francis Buchanan’s A Journey from Madras through Mysore, Carnatac and Malabar, Vol. 2, p. 320.

7. Commissioner Graham’s Report to the Board of Revenue dated January 14, 1822 in Slavery in India Documents submitted to both Houses of British Parliament, folio 924.

8. Thomas Baber’s Reply to Queries from Commissioners on Slavery in Appendix to Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company, Para 6, pp. 426, 1833.

9. The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register, Volume 27, issue of January 1829, pp. 22-23.

10. British Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in East Indies, 1832, London, p. 2.

11. See the Replies of Peter Gordon to Qts 734-752 in Minutes of Evidence on the Affairs of the East India Company, London, 1831, pp. 62-65.

12. The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register, issue of January 1829, Volume 27, p. 25.

13. Commissioner Graham’s Report to the Board of Revenue, p. 55 mentioned in Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in India, 1828, folio 928.

14. See the East India Magazine, issue of June 1838, pp. 562-564; also the Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in India, 1828, p. 309.

15. Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in India,1828, pp. 9, 10, 710. It is indeed remarkable how an erudite scholar of William Jones’ stature could be so blissfully ignorant on points of fact and points of law. It appears that Jones is deliberately obfuscating the issue for the relationship between a master and a servant is one of mutual rights and obligations and of free consent, and hence a contract, whether verbal or otherwise. A person descends into the status of a slave not out of free will or consent, nor is there any essence of reciprocity, of their rights and obligations, other than customary usage. On point of fact, this founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal seems to be living in a world of his own. He talks of chattel slavery and says it is unhappily unknown to the laws of England. Did this savant not know that his mother country was the largest exporter of African negroes to not only it’s own islands in the Caribbean but also to other colonisers in the New World? That it was in its island dependencies, where chattel slavery of the most horrendous kind,worse than all Roman ingenuity could devise, was practised by the full support of the Mother Nation and His Majesty’s Royal Navy? If chattel slavery was unknown to English laws, how could hundreds of thousands of slaves be forced to lead a life worse than cattle in the slave colonies of Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, St Nevis, St Christopher and the United States which in 1785 was still a British colony? If the English law was so impervious to chattel slavery then how could its citizens practise the horrendous crime of the crew of the slaver Zong, in which manacled slaves spooned up in a ship’s hold were considered as equivalent to a cargo of goods?

16. British Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in India, 1828, pp. 14, 21. It indeed appears as a great farce that the powerful Dutch marine could not prevent a single slaver from landing on its shores provided that its interest in proscribing the slave trade was genuine and not nominal. The subsequent action by the Supreme Court at Calcutta of granting a token imprisonment of three months to the Danish slave dealer and liberating him after taking an assurance of good conduct from him is even worse. It is indeed most hilarious that this highest authority of Judicature could send Nand Kumar to the gallows for an act of forgery but send a man who had destroyed hundreds of human lives to be incarcerated for just ninety days and then liberating him after taking a pledge of good conduct from him under surety.

17. From the British Parliamentary Papers on Slavery in India, 1828, p. 12.

18. See the Report of the British Political Agent at Kathiawar, Willoughby, to the Governor of Bombay Presidency, Robert Grant, in British Parliamentary Papers, Bill no 138, 1839, pp. 107-111.

19. See the Communication of the Rana of Porbandar to the British political agent at Kathiawar, Willoughby, in ibid. p.118, p. 123.

20. From British Parliamentary Papers of the House of Commons, Bill No 138, 1839, pp. 152, 156.

21. Report of the Commission on the East African Slave Trade, p. 4, 1870.

22. From the The East African Slave Trade by Captain Frazer, Reverend Bishop Tozer and James Christie, p.11, London, 1871.

23. Correspondence of Commander Bunce to Commodore Wyvill of Her Majesty’s Navy aboard HMS ‘Castor’, Tongha Bay, June 8, 1850 in Enclosure 1 of Commodore Wyvill’s Correspondence to the Secretary of the Admiralty dated July 9, 1850, Document No 243, British and Foreign State Papers, pp. 279-281, 1850-1851.

24. Correspondence of Commander Bunce to Commodore Wyvill dated June 16, 1850 in Enclosure 4 of Commodore‘s Correspondence to Secretary of the Admiralty, British and Foreign State Papers, p. 283, 1850-1851.

25. From Bihar Administrative Report of 1872-73, Appendix 13, Para 6.

26. From Bihar Administrative Report of 1875-76, Appendix 13, Para 7, 4a.

27. Ibid., section 4a2.

28. From the Final Settlement Report of Palamau, 1894-95 to 1896-97 by D.H.E. Sunder.

29. From the Report of P.C. Tallent in the District Gazetteer of Palamau, 1921-22.

30. Text of a Deed of Sale by D. Listor, an Indigo planter, published in Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 6, p. 950.

31. From The Census Report of the Bombay Presidency, 1921-1922, Part 1, pp. 219-223.

32. From the International Labour Organisation publication, Indigenous People, 1953, p. 393 quoting from A. Aiyappan’s “A Report on the Socio-economic Condition of the Aboriginal Tribes of the province of Madras”.

33. Ibid., p. 394.

34. From a report prepared by Anita Balasubrahmaniam working with the NGO, Asha-Bangalore, on the work done for bonded labourers in Red hills.

35. From a Report of the Fact-finding Team on Child labour in Iron and Granite Mines of Hospet and Bellary comprising of Members of Mining Minerals and People, H.A.Q., Samata, Oxfam and others, page 7. The preamble to this report tells us that for each basin full of iron-ore rocks weighing up to fifteen kilograms they get a meagre five rupees so that the average earnings of an entire family hammering all day long would be six basins or ninety kilograms which would fetch thirty rupees, and the maximum could be ten basins or ‘Puttus’ a day meaning fifty rupees per day of back-breaking work from morning to sunset under the blazing sun with not even sufficient water to quench their thirst.

36. Ibid., p. 8.

37. From the Second Report of the National Commission for Labour, Volume One, Chapter on Organised Labour,
p. 623.

38. Neera Burra’s Born to Work, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 24.

39. From Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of
Slavery: Bonded Child Labour in India, written by Lee Tucker, lead researchers Ms Tucker, Arvind Ganeshan, September 1996.

Sudhanshu Bhandari is a Ph.D research scholar,
Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at: or sud_charu1357@

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