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Social and Legal Issues

Project on


Aishwarya Saxena
Raunak Sinha (121221)

Under the guidance of:
Prof. Neena Jindal

Table of Contents
Debt Bondage......................................................................................................... 1
Things going on in India that set a glaring example of Debt Bondage
Contributory Factors.......................................................................................... 9-12
Anti-Slavery measures..................................................................................... 13-16
Case Studies ................................................................................................... 17-22

Debt Bondage
Debt bondage (also known as debt slavery or bonded labor) is a person's pledge of their labor or
services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation. The services required to
repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined. Debt bondage can
be passed on from generation to generation. Article 1(a) of the 1956 Supplementary Convention
on the Abolition of Slavery defines debt bondage as "the status or condition arising from a
pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security
for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the
liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and
defined". The Convention seeks to abolish the practice. Debt bondage has been described by the
United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery". Most countries are parties to the Convention,
but the practice is still prevalent in South Asia. Debt bondage in India was legally abolished in
1976 but remains prevalent. This was due to with weak enforcement of the law by governments.
Bonded labor involves the exploitive interlinking of credit and labor agreements that devolve
into slave-like exploitation due to severe power imbalances between the lender and the borrower.
The rise of Dalit activism, government legislation starting as early as 1949, as well as ongoing
work by NGOs and government offices to enforce labor laws and rehabilitate those in debt,
appears to have contributed to the reduction of bonded labor in India. However, according to
research papers presented by the International Labor Organization, there are still many obstacles
to the eradication of bonded labor in India.
There have been numerous investigations in recent years to determine the incidence and
prevalence of modern slavery worldwide, and debt bondage in India has been found to be the
most extensive form of slavery in existence today, occupying the greatest number of captives.
Although there is an abundance of data to support these findings, the Indian government has not
allotted sufficient effort to end the practice. It is apparent that India has unique conditions that
have enabled slavery to persist over a great length of time, and allowed slaves to exist in greater
numbers there than in any other country on Earth.
The objectives of this report are to outline the socio-political context in India that has allowed the
continuation of slavery, to describe the practice of Indian debt bondage, to identify the current

anti-slavery laws and organizations in the country, and to recommend interventions that may
improve the present set of circumstances.

Things going on in India that set a glaring example of Debt Bondage
The Chukri System, West Bengal:
The Chukri System is a debt bondage or forced labor system found in Kidderpore and other parts
of West Bengal. Under this system a female can be coerced into prostitution in order to pay off
debts. She generally works without pay for one year or longer in order to repay a supposed debt
to the brothel owner for food, clothes, make-up, and living expenses.
The system creates a workforce of people virtually enslaved to their creditors, and constitutes
one of the primary causes for women entering the sex trade. The system flourishes primarily in
West Bengal or Calcutta.

The case of Bihar and UP:
The money wages of the field-laborers in Tirhut (North Bihar) had not risen for the past sixty
years, though the prices of food grains had. Even in times of plenty, after paying the rent and
numerous access 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.
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 twenty five 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. So in such
circumstances, the hapless peasant and agrarian laborers would have no choice but to become
trapped sooner or later in a relationship of bondage whereby he and his family’s entire labor
would be controlled by the creditor/landlord for an indefinite period. It was this vicious cycle
which forced free peasant families to become bonded laborers called as ‘Kamias’ in Bihar and
Harwahas (ploughmen).

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 Beggar 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.

In the Revised District Gazetteer of Palamau, 1907, one finds the following information on these
bonded laborers: 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 labor 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. In the eastern districts of
UP, there was an equivalent system known as ‘Harwahagiri’

The Social Consequences of Caste

To understand the social structure in India, it is imperative to outline the caste system. This
system of social hierarchy is the most important contributory factor in debt-bondage slavery. The
caste system has been described as uniquely Indian, and it is unlikely that slavery could exist
without it since the majority of slaves are Dalits (the lowest social group, actually outside the
traditional Varna system of caste).
Caste is one of the oldest customs in India, the roots of which date back more than three
thousand years. In theory, the hierarchy consists of four tiers, or varnas. These varnas include the
Brahmins, the highest caste, traditionally consisting of priests and scholars; the Kshatriyas,
warriors and rulers; the Vaishya, merchants; and the Shudra, peasants, laborers, and servants. The
Dalits have been known as the “Untouchables” (including Scheduled Castes/SCs and Scheduled
Tribes/STs, which will be referred to as Dalits for the purposes of this paper) and were not part of
the original ranking system. Technically speaking they remain outside the varna structure today.
In 1935, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act with the professed intention
of balancing British and Indian economic interests, yet according to Jawaharlal Nehru in reality
it strengthened the roles of elites (both British and Indian) while excluding the possibility of
interference by representatives of the Indian people. The act broadly separated Brahmin and
“non-Brahmin” castes, presumably to simplify the structure of the caste system for British
understanding. The non-Brahmin groups were classified into the categories of “backward
classes” and “depressed classes”, which later became Scheduled Castes. (It is important to
remember that individuals are born into their caste status; therefore, caste affiliations have little
to do with life choices and are largely beyond one’s control.)
The importance placed on the caste system by the British had dire consequences. Social
inequality was ingrained in British-ruled India. Nicholas B. Dirks has posited that “Caste became
the colonial form of civil society; it justified the denial of political rights to Indian subjects (not

citizens) and explained the necessity of colonial rule”. India is steeped in tradition, and caste has
been socially accepted and tolerated throughout its history, especially since its reinforcement
during the British colonial era. Although the Indian Constitution (passed in 1950) includes
numerous articles that specifically prohibit all forms of “Untouchability”, discrimination, and
exclusion according to caste (as well as race, sex, or religion), the reality is that caste is still a
detrimental and obstructive factor for the “weak” or lower classes. It is common for Dalit’s to
experience discrimination in the form of arbitrary detention, rape, torture, murder, the
withholding of resources (including disaster relief), and segregation or complete exclusion from
schools, places of worship, housing, public services, and private businesses.
An underlying factor in caste discrimination is the widespread social acceptance of individual
caste status as the foundation of personal identity. Sukhadeo Thorat provides an insightful
summation of the societal effects of the caste system:
The unit of society is not the individual. Even the family is not regarded as a unit of society …
The primary unit of society is caste. There is no room for individual merit and the consideration
of individual justice. Any rights that an individual has are not due to him personally; it is due to
him because he belongs to a particular caste.
Thorat’s analysis makes clear that while the caste system prevails, Dalit’s will never experience
social justice. Under the caste system, India has evaded the Western model of individualistic
society. Embracing individualism and/or egalitarianism is not essential, but finding a balance
between the two is necessary for recognizing the human rights of Dalit’s.

Debt-Bondage Slavery

Debt-bondage slavery is a practice that has a long-standing history in India, with its roots in the
caste system. Wealthy higher-caste landlords typically give small loans to destitute individuals
and/or families without assets, whose labor is their only means of repayment. It is clear that land
ownership, wealth, power, and higher caste status are interrelated. Dalit’s have been coerced into
working the land of others, because they have no opportunity to purchase land of their own. By
and large, the only asset belonging to the Dalit’s is their labor. Many Dalit families currently
residing in rural India began as migrant laborers and settled upon finding agricultural or quarry
work. Employment agencies have often been used to help migrant workers find positions with
upper-caste landlords, and in such circumstances the fee paid by the landlord to the agency
becomes the worker’s debt. Without the caste system, it is unlikely that debt bondage would
continue as a socially accepted reality; it would be more widely challenged as a violation of
fundamental human rights.
Although India is culturally diverse in many ways, an unfortunate common thread is found in
debt-bondage slavery. Eighteen of India’s twenty-two states have documented cases of debt
bondage: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand,
Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar
Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and West Bengal. Debt bondage is the most common form of slavery in the
world, and an estimated 80 per cent of bonded laborers in India work in the agricultural sector.
As reported by Anti-Slavery International, many other Indian workplaces employ bonded
laborers, including brick kilns, stone quarries, silk farms, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, mines,
forests, match and firework factories, tea and cardamom plantations, shrimp farms, cigarette
factories, domestic households, and textile plants.
Agricultural debt-bondage slavery is directly related to land possession. Many rural Indian
families who were once free (typically landless) farmers fell upon hardship and saw no other
choice but to take out a loan from a local landlord in order to keep working the land. With no
assets or belongings, the debtors (and often their families) pledge their own lives and labor as
collateral against the debt to the landlord. Having bonded laborers instead of paid employees is

advantageous for Indian landlords because their profits can exceed 50 per cent, compared to less
than 1 per cent if the minimum wage is paid. The debts are not considered legitimate by any
governmental authority, yet landlords often manage to sustain them over many generations.
Working to pay off debt without receiving wages leads to the trap of bondage.
During the period of bondage, families accrue more debt whenever there is a need for medical
care, additional foodstuffs, to hold a ceremony (e.g., a wedding or funeral), or if a worker is fined
for being absent or stealing, etc. The landlord, or creditor, tacks the cost of such necessities onto
the existing debt. Additionally, a standard procedure for Indian landlords is that all of the
worker’s labor is applied against only the interest of the debt; the principal must be paid in cash.
The conditions of agricultural debt bondage are so abhorrent that thousands of farmers, when
faced with the possibility of a lifetime in bondage, have chosen to commit suicide. More than
180,000 Indian farmers are estimated to have committed suicide since 1997 because of their
formidable debts. The Indian government attempted to cancel the farmers’ debts with a $13
billion bailout, which was unsuccessful since an estimated 88 per cent of debts were owed to
private creditors (landlords).

The suicides indicate the magnitude of desperation experienced by millions of landless low-caste
individuals in rural India. Taking out a loan truly is a matter of life and death, and thousands
have chosen death as a more favorable option than embarking upon a life of slavery for oneself
and one’s family.
A significant number of bonded laborers in India are children. As with the number of slaves in
India, the number of children in bonded labor is disputed, yet Human Rights Watch has reported
that it is at least fifteen million. In India, children most often fall into debt bondage because of
the actions of their parents. Debt inheritance is a common way for children to become indebted
to a landlord. Child debt bondage also occurs when money is borrowed (usually by parents,
sometimes by children) from a business-owner or landlord. Parents knowingly send their
children away to work (often in another state) in order to receive an advance on the children’s
wages, making the children comparable to commodities exchanged between the parents and the
employers. The cash advance is often considered a loan, and accrues interest over time. Some
parents send their daughters to work to earn money to pay for their weddings; such girls are
known as Sumangali. In rural areas, landlords expect the debt to be worked off by any means
necessary, and in some villages families have been in bondage for two hundred years, over eight
Employers subject child slaves to extremely hazardous work conditions, perhaps because
children are unlikely to defy orders given by an imposing adult authority. Many industries that

employ child slaves occupy dimly lit buildings with poor ventilation, leading to damaged
eyesight and the spread of infectious diseases. In the silk industry, children work with boiling
water, frequently suffering severe burns, scars, and the removal of skin on their hands and feet.
Children are especially susceptible to various forms of maltreatment because of their inherent
vulnerability. Incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse are common in cases of child
slavery. Children working in stone quarries are made to carry explosives because their small
bodies are a better fit for the tight cracks in the stone.

The working conditions of those held in debt bondage constitute a form of slavery because they
are in gross violation of fundamental human rights and established laws, and severely restrict the
freedom of individuals. Debt bondage is based upon two principles: that an individual is required
to work under the threat of a penalty, and that the service performed is involuntary. The penalties
and restrictions placed upon bonded laborers are the key differentiators between debt-bondage
slavery and otherwise poor working conditions. Servitude is compulsory for bonded laborers
because they work under the threat of further human rights violations, psychological or physical
abuse, or possible death in the event of non-compliance.

Contributory Factors

Weak rural infrastructure is a central factor in the continuation of debt bondage, and is related to
caste discrimination. Fewer Dalit’s would be forced to take loans from landlords if their access to
vital resources was supported by higher castes. Without access to education, land ownership,
food security, potable water, health care, decent employment and housing, and legitimate credit,
many Dalit’s will continue to take out illegitimate loans as a means of meeting their needs in
times of desperation. Widespread discrimination against the Dalit’s has undermined their human
rights and hindered rural development overall, as only higher castes are permitted to advance.
The right to education is vital for advancement, yet discrimination against Dalit children in rural
schools discourages them from attending. Schools are sometimes deliberately established in
areas less accessible to Dalit’s, and Dalit children suffer verbal and physical abuse from both
teachers and students. Education is fundamental to the achievement of equal opportunities
through knowledge of human rights and basic laws—knowledge that many Westerners take for
granted as common sense. The continuation of inequality in the educational sphere is likely to
remove the possibility of further development for India’s Dalit population.
Rural labor-market discrimination in India is yet another caste-based obstacle to social and
economic freedom for the Dalit’s. A 2003 study of three rural villages in the states of Orissa,
Gujarat, and Maharashtra found several levels of labor-market discrimination, ranging from
“complete exclusion of low-caste persons from employment by the [higher-castes]”, to selective
inclusion in employment, to debt-bondage slavery, described as “forced work for low-caste
Untouchables, imposed by traditional caste-based obligations leading to overwork and loss of
freedom”. The traditional view of Dalit’s as impure and contaminated is a serious hindrance in
terms of employment options. It seems that Dalit’s will never be hired for positions that could be
filled by higher castes, which may guarantee the reproduction of the caste system for generations
to come.
Also associated with bonded labor is the denial of access to land ownership. Acquisition of land
is arguably the most prudent way for Dalit’s to become upwardly mobile; therefore, it is
necessary to ensure a clear passage through this channel. Land has been identified as the most
important asset in Indian agrarian economies because its possession “is a symbol of entitlement,

power and privileges and is synonymous with not only the economic status of a household but its
social status as well”.

Besides status, employment options (especially self-employment) in rural areas are heavily
contingent on land ownership. In rural India, the number of Scheduled Castes in 1994 who
cultivated their own land (about 20 per cent of rural SCs) amounted to less than half the number
of higher castes who owned and cultivated land.16 Bonded labor is certain to persist so long as
land rights are systematically denied to Dalit’s.

Political Corruption
Justice is often blocked by the severely congested Indian court system. There are at least twentyfive million cases pending in courts, and most cases take decades to reach resolution, therefore
millions of cases never reach courts. The rule of law has disintegrated in India to the point at
which it is nearly impossible to conduct business, preserve human rights, or achieve justice
through legitimate/lawful channels. The fundamental problems are the lack of access to a speedy
trial, low rates of conviction, intensive prison overcrowding due to “under trial” (individuals
imprisoned while their trials are in progress), and administrative corruption, apathy, and nonperformance.

Political corruption discourages individuals without the necessary connections from running for
public office, the filing of incident reports with police, and the bringing of claims to trial. It has
become ingrained in public sentiment that justice is unlikely to be achieved through legal means,
so it is improbable that the Dalit’s will experience social justice and equality via complaints
through the judicial system.
Without the support of local public servants (e.g., politicians and/or police), bonded laborers
have virtually no recourse within the Indian government to seek refuge from tyrannical
landlords. Corruption within the political and judicial spheres has perpetuated the quiet
acceptance of forced bonded labor and social inequality in India.

In states like Kerala, where land reforms have been implemented by statute, bonded labor
virtually has been eliminated as opposed to States like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu
and Karnataka where large portions of land are still held by families who practice feudal forms
of land ownership and labor employment. Owing to lack of livelihood options, large number of
rural population are forced to work for landlords and eventually end up in perpetual debt traps

resulting in entire families and villages ending up as bonded to the landlord for generations. The
absence of public health facilities and education opportunities literally push the rural population
to work either as bonded laborers or to migrate into urban areas seeking odd jobs.

A large number of children employed as bonded laborers by the non-farming sectors like smallscale textile, firecracker, leather goods manufacturing, brick kilns and granite extraction units are
from the families who are subjected to distress migration from the rural villages. In the cities,
children from these families are employed as bonded laborers in restaurants and eateries or end
up being employed as bonded beggars or fall prey to sex trade.

In Meghalaya, extraction of coal in private coal mines in the Jaintiya hills region is exclusively
undertaken by manual laborers, thousands of them being bonded, who have come to work in the
mines from neighboring States to beat acute poverty. It was reported in the Hindu newspaper on
19/10/2012 that a person had sold himself and his wife as bonded laborers against a loan of Rs.
45,000/- four years ago to the village landlord. He died this August leaving behind the unpaid
debt. The fact that both husband and wife had worked for virtually no money and ate only stale
food at the farm of the landlord day and night did not help. The debt only accumulated interest.
The husband was often beaten up so brutally at work that he wouldn’t be able to stand the next
day. The wife is now being ex-communicated from the village until she pays the landlord’s
unpaid debt. It is illegal but accepted practice in Punjab to employ laborers against the loan.
These bonded laborers are paid almost no or very little salary and are kept poor deliberately so
that they are never able to pay back the dues to the landowners. These are glaring examples.

However many States take a stand that there are no bonded laborers in their States and that all
that was required to be done has been done. Eradication of bonded laborers is not a onetime
event. It can occur and recur any time in any industry/occupational/process. The need of the hour
is to focus on safeguards for release of bonded laborers and prevention from their lapsing into
bondage again. For instance, identification, release and rehabilitation should be simultaneous.
Between identification and release there should not be any gap and in the same way between
release and start of rehabilitation process. It is important to ensure that release certificates in
respect of individual bonded laborers identified as such are issued promptly in the language
which is intelligible to the bonded laborers. Prosecution of employers must go simultaneously
but separately with identification and release of bonded laborers. Delay in conviction of the
bonded labor keeper or even his eventual acquittal should not inhibit or stall the rehabilitation
process. The Ministry of Labor, Government of India has initiated a Centrally Sponsored Scheme
under which Rs. 20,000 is provided for the rehabilitation of each bonded laborer, to be equally
contributed by the Centre and the State Governments. In the case of North Eastern States, 100%

central assistance is to be provided if they express their inability to provide their share. But, by
and large, the process of rehabilitation is poor and is frequently delayed, particularly in the case
of inter-state bonded migrant laborers, and the degree of concerted convergent action required on
the part of the administration is rarely forthcoming. Prosecution of employers is also weak. Since
the bonded laborers are very poor and asset less, most of them relapse into bondage, while others
experience only a very marginal increase in income. The financial assistance from the
Government, even if realized, in the absence of any additional support mechanism for a released
and asset less laborer is not sufficient support to start a new life. However, increasing the
quantum of the support amount is not a viable solution. Instead to end the practice, what is
required is strict implementation of labor laws in India.

Other than this, the State Government should dovetail the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for
rehabilitation of bonded laborers with other ongoing poverty alleviation schemes such as Swarna
Jyanti Gram Swaraj Rozgar Yojana (SJGSRY), Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes,
Tribal Sub Plans, etc. Preventive efforts must recognize the social dimensions of bondage, and
thereby address it through public sensitization and rights awareness, adult literacy, organizing
workers, income generation and vocational skills development.

The strategies to eliminate bonded labor need to go beyond the symptoms to address the root
causes. The multifaceted and deeply rooted nature of those causes requires an integrated and long
term strategy. The role of District Magistrates in elimination of bonded labor is significant.

The law provides for the duties and responsibilities of the District Magistrate and every officer
specified by him. They have to ensure that the provisions of the Act are properly carried out. The
law also provides for the constitution of Vigilance Committees at the district and sub-divisional
level, duties and responsibilities of such Committees in the area of identification and
rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers. The District Magistrates have to ensure the release of
identified bonded laborers on the basis of reports submitted by the Vigilance Committees after
conducting the survey at the district and sub-divisional level. They would also formulate suitable
schemes for the rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers-land based, non-land based and skill/craft
based occupations, keeping in view the preferences, felt needs and interest of the beneficiaries.

Anti-Slavery Measures

The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976 (BLSA), incorporated into the Constitution
of India during Indira Gandhi’s administration, was a significant step towards the abolition of
debt bondage. The BLSA applied to all of India, clearly defined terms relevant to bonded labor,
and outlined what practices were to be forbidden. It was explicitly stated that upon the
commencement of the act every bonded laborer was to be released, any agreements entailing
bonded labor were void, and that henceforth any agreements to render individuals as bonded
laborers were prohibited.
As with many other human rights/anti-slavery laws, the BLSA has been poorly enforced. Upon
its commencement, thousands of bonded laborers were identified, released, and rehabilitated by
the state. But Anti-Slavery International has reported that since the 1990s, “the process of
identification and release has dramatically slowed and government authorities have downplayed
the extent of bonded labor in India and failed to recognize new forms of bonded labor.”19 It is
true that the number of bonded laborers is highly disputed and imprecise, but even the lowest
estimate offered by researchers (approximately eight million) dwarfs the number reported in
2009 as having been “identified and released” by the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment,
documented at 288,098 people. The 2008–9 annual report put out by the Ministry of Labor and
Employment also noted that in May 2000 the central government was to have provided funding
for programmes directed at the identification, rehabilitation, and education of bonded laborers. It
is apparent that any actions taken by the central government under the BLSA are outdated and it
is possible that little has been done for nearly a decade.

Aside from the government, many other organizations in India have bonded labor on their
agendas, such as the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), the National Human
Rights Commission (NHRC), and the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC). NIRD
has recognized that individuals often fall into bonded labor because they are forced to take out
loans to survive the “lean season”, when food is scarce during July and August. In Maharashtra,
the Academy of Development Science (ADS) has established grain banks in conjunction with
NIRD to ensure that SC and ST families in rural areas have access to grain during the lean
season without taking out loans from landlords. Borrowers must contribute grain to the bank

throughout the year, and must repay their grain loans over a four-year period. The grain-bank
programme is one example of a positive step for rural development and a legitimate alternative
to falling into the trap of debt bondage.

The NHRC was founded as part of India’s 1993 Human Rights Act. The NHRC has a mechanism
for citizens to register complaints of human rights violations, and bonded labor is on a list of the
major types of recently filed complaints. Seemingly the most active and effectual body against
debt bondage in India, the NHRC has carried out numerous reports and investigations as recently
as April 2010. Its actions have ranged from liberating groups of bonded laborers to mounting
legal challenges against decisions made by state governments on bonded-labor issues. One of the
NHRC’s current projects involves establishing human rights “cells” or offices throughout India,
an important step in addressing large-scale human rights violations.

The mission of CEC is to provide education about Indian workers. CEC has a specific focus on
understanding the evolution of labor relations in an increasingly globalized world, defending
labor rights and democratic rights, and providing a means for organizing trade unions and
people’s movements. Spreading information on debt-bondage slavery can be considered a form
of action against it, and CEC has taken the initiative to publish many documents and maintain a
website ( to address the practice of forced/bonded labor in India. CEC is the
most laudable organization working for labor rights in India, especially because of its efforts to
provide a store of reliable information pertaining to debt bondage, and for partnering with
numerous NGOs and other organizations (e.g., the National Campaign for Labor Rights, the
Campaign against Child Labor, the Campaign against Child Trafficking, and the Indian Social
Institute) to accomplish its goals.

All of the aforementioned organizations are working towards fulfilling human rights initiatives
and eliminating debt-bondage slavery. The steps taken by CEC, the NHRC, and NIRD to
improve human-rights and labor-rights standards for India’s working poor represent significant
accomplishments. However, their basic limitation is that they are small organizations unlikely to
have the capacity to extend their positive influence throughout all of India. It is important for
CEC and the NHRC to disseminate information in print rather than electronically, as only a small
percentage of Indians have Internet access. Expansion of these organizations will be crucial to

future success, as establishing a presence in multiple locations will spread awareness of their
campaign against debt bondage.

The ILO (International Labor Organization) promotes microfinance initiatives as potentially
preventative measures against debt bondage. The ILO’s Social Finance Programme stated in a
working paper that microfinance is not sufficient to prevent bondage, but a group-based savings
and credit delivery mechanism can be an excellent vehicle to provide other essential services for
economic and social empowerment … related activities should strengthen the capacity of
households to generate a livelihood, contribute to the reduction of expenses that can push them
into bondage, reduce their economic and social dependence on the employer, and support their
greater social inclusion in the community.

Microfinance is the most plausible way for bonded laborers to build capital for personal use and
lift themselves out of the desperate financial circumstances that drive individuals to take out
loans. NGOs will be the main force behind rural microfinance programmes, since Indian banks
have a history of imposing drastic increases in loan interest rates and confiscating land and
homes from rural farmers. Having the ability to save money will provide means of establishing a
financial safety net and increase the potential for social mobility, if the money is used to
purchase productive assets such as land or to establish a small business.

The first 15 years after the enactment of the law witnessed a flurry of interventions by the NGOs/
Civil society, judicial activism by the highest court of the land and a pronounced political will by
the central government to implement the law seriously. Despite hard resistance posed by the
feudalistic bureaucracy and administrative harassment at the local level, the efforts succeeded in
releasing and rehabilitating about 2,50,000 bonded laborers (up to March 1993) all over India.

The next 15 years (from 1993 till to date) -the era coinciding with the liberalization and
globalization however, witnessed a steep decline in the political will and activism to address the
issue seriously. The sluggish and half-hearted efforts could result in release and rehabilitation of
a mere 30 to 35,000 bonded laborers across the country. The state euphoria with ‘market
solution’ to the problem of poverty and increasingly greater integration of NGOs into the Micro
Finance –as the new approach to poverty eradication has resulted in abandonment of ‘human
right’ and ‘justice’ based interventions, seriously undermining the potential for eradication of
bonded labor.

Eradicating Caste
The Indian government is often silent on the issue of internal social inequality, so the following
public analogy by India’s former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was all the more striking:

Dalit’s have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the
problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of “untouchability” was
Apartheid in South Africa. Untouchability is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on

This admission by former Prime Minister Singh may be considered a glimmer of hope for the
future of India’s social climate. Drawing a comparison between Untouchability and Apartheid
may be advantageous in this case, as the dissolution of Apartheid may serve as a model for the
dissolution of caste. Lindsay Talmud, a South African peace worker concerned with the
Israel-Palestine conflict, has identified “Six South African Lessons” from the fall of Apartheid
that he believes may be useful for Israel–Palestine. Some of the fundamental similarities between
the South African and Israel–Palestine conflicts are also shared by the caste conflict in India: all
three cases involve a long-standing social conflict based upon differences in personal identity
(e.g., race, ethnicity, and class), and feature elitist governments, widespread violence, and
oppression of the group perceived as being of lower status.

Among the six lessons identified by Talmud are some that may have resonance for the
dissolution of caste in India: “The South African model suggests that the decisive factor is the
readiness to engage in the process of change, not the promise of a particular result.” The Indian
government would be wise to follow this advice and take steps towards reform because it is time
to make significant changes to the current system, rather than hesitate for fear of failure or
possible adverse outcomes (as in the last five decades of botched land-reform plans). Although
the collapse of Apartheid marked the failure of one political system it signified the birth of
another, which meant positive changes for South Africa overall. At present it seems improbable
that the Indian government will admit fault for the continuation of caste but it is important that it
take responsibility for the welfare of its people and make changes accordingly.

Another important South African lesson applicable to the dissolution of caste in India is that
change must be accomplished through negotiation rather than violence. Higher castes have often
succeeded in keeping lower castes down through the use of violence, which perpetuates the
current conflict and inhibits social progress.

In contrast with Apartheid in South Africa, Untouchability in India is outlawed by the country’s
Constitution. The South African lesson with the greatest salience for the Indian government is
that Real change became possible only after both sides admitted that they faced a lose–lose
situation. Change is possible only when you realize that the path you are on is leading nowhere
or perhaps to catastrophe … Conversely, the struggle will continue as long as one side believes
that it can win and impose its will on the other side.

It is apparent that India’s existing legislation against caste discrimination has been largely
ineffectual. A necessary step in the eradication of caste is for upper-caste Hindus to recognize
that it is an unsustainable practice, and that coexistence with those perceived as “untouchable” is
preferable to the current oppression and denial of human rights. Upper-caste Hindus believe they
can win the battle of caste because, so far, they have generally been victorious. The caste
struggle, and by extension debt bondage, will continue until the upper-caste perpetuators are
made to understand that Dalit’s share the same constitutional rights as every Indian citizen.
Central and state government reform is imperative in producing lasting social progress in India.
A turning point has been reached at which the Indian government must make changes to benefit
directly its population as a whole. Funding has been amply provided for economic development
and defense programmes, but much of the Indian public continues to suffer extreme poverty and
deprivation. Reforms must be made to address inadequacies related to limited funding and poor
implementation in such areas as the police service, Supreme Court, land reform, and various
ministries and departments within the central government. It is time for India to admit and accept
the failure of the caste system, and move forward to build a stronger social fabric that does not
accommodate the practice of debt bondage.

Case Studies:
National case study: The case of bonded laborers in brick kiln industry of
Southeast India
Recruitment process for laborers
Brick kiln industry is a labor intensive industry. Seasonality of brick making process, which
depends on the monsoon season, implies it produces only with seasonal migrant workers of rural
areas. In the state of Tamil Nadu, brick kilns' migrant workers are mainly from Villipuram and
Madurai cities. Migration is intrastate contrarily to New Delhi where brick kilns workers are
from other states (Gupta, 2003), which is also the case in the sugarcane industry (Breman, 1978;
Bhukuth et al., 2005). Rogaly et al. (2001) found also intrastate migration in West Bengal, India.
Therefore, in their study, seasonal migrants move without labor broker. They migrate in little
group of five persons. In the brick kiln industry of Tamil Nadu, workers migrate through brokers.
In this industry, laborers cannot be recruited without brokers; they are recruited through the
advance system.
Laborers need this advance to survive in the village, which is their only resource in an
environment characterized by adult unemployment. They do not have any other possibility to
survive except by contracting debt from the labor broker. The advance system procures some
advantages to laborers. They receive an advance which is free of interest, they also have the
opportunity to work a part of the season and during the non‐working season the advance permits
them to consume. The counterpart of the system is the payment of the debt by working in brick
kilns. The risk of the advance system is to fall into bondage. If a worker is unable to repay his
debt entirely he is in a bondage situation. He has to come back the next season to clear his debt
under the same broker and at the same brick kiln. Hence, a laborer is bonded once she/he takes
an advance and in return she/he has to work for the creditor to repay his/her debt. According to
this definition of bonded labor, brick kiln workers are bonded laborers.
Brokers recruit laborers from a familiar environment: family members, caste appurtenance, and
neighborhood. They recruit those upon whom they have a psychological and monetary influence.
Owing to this influence, these people are easily manageable. In brick kiln they can work without
making any trouble, for instance they will not claim for higher wages. By recruiting vulnerable
laborers, the ultimate aim of employers is to work with docile and manageable workers who do
not have any bargaining power to influence the formation of wage. Laborers who are indebted to

the broker cannot ask for higher wages, it is disrespectful vis‐à‐vis the broker to do so, because
the latter provides them for money when they do not work.
In this industry, brokers are also responsible for their laborers since employers do not care of
them. All the working affairs are dealt with the intermediary of broker.

The necessity of child labor in the working process
In this industry, due to physical constraints adults are more productive than children. Brokers
recruit only couple of adult composed of a man and his wife, or two men, rarely two women. A
man alone is never recruited. Despite the recruiting process of adults, child labor is a common
figure of brick kilns. However, as children cannot be productive enough to enhance the
employer's competitiveness in the labor market, brokers never recruit children alone. Children
work with their parents. As parents do not have anybody to monitor and to take care of them in
their village, they migrate with their children.

Children are found working only in molding process. The work is organized as a home‐based
enterprise. Child labor is used to increase the family productivity. Contrary to other kinds of
family enterprises child labor is not used to reduce the cost of labor but it is implemented to
increase the price of labor.

The piece rate system is applied to remunerate brick kiln workers. They are paid a weekly wage,
50 percent of the wage being for the clearance of the debt and the remaining 50 percent for the
consumption. The objective of the household is twofold: improving its living standard in the
brick kiln and to return home with extra‐money. If at the end of the season the household has
paid more than the debt token it would return home with extra‐money.

A household who have cleared its debt increases its bargaining power to deal higher amount of
advance. In this context, by improving the household productivity, child labor becomes a mean
to bargain higher amount of advance. In our qualitative research we found household comprising
children older than seven years old can ask for higher advance. For a couple the minimum
amount of advance given is Rs 5,000, this amount increases with the productivity of the
household, in other words, the advance depend indirectly to the presence of child labor. The
maximum amount of advance can reach Rs 15,000‐20,000 for the households who have two to
three children of 8‐14 years old. Children above 14 are considered as adults, so they can take
their own advance.

In our case, child labor is used to increase the bargaining power of household and the household
productivity. For parents, child labor mainly prevents the household from falling into bondage. In
fact the risk of falling into bondage is high because workers are illiterate, they do not really pay
attention to the amount of debt token and the amount of debt repaid. The clearance of the debt
depends on the worker‐broker relationship and honesty of brokers. If a worker is not good in
term with his broker the latter will bond him. Generally, productive workers are not bonded since
they entertain close relationship with the broker. As children increase household productivity,
child labor constitutes a kind of insurance both for parents and brokers. Without child labor a lot
of families will fall into a dynamic process of debt bondage. In such form of recruitment, child
labor is clearly complementary to adult labor.

International case study: Complementarity of adult ‐child labor and policy

Child labor in the brick kiln industry is not a substitute for adult labor. Others studies draw same
conclusion. For instance, a study carried out by Cockburn (2000) in Ethiopia, shows that the
probability for a child to work is high when the household owns an asset like land or a family
business. In fact, in these kinds of enterprises child labor is not in competition with adult labor.
Thus, parents in home‐based activities use child labor to increase household's earning. In
activities like home‐based enterprises, child labor is complementary to adult labor. All the family
members' labor is used to increase the household productivity.
The hypothesis of substitutability of Basu and Van holds in market‐oriented enterprises having a
special vocation to export their product in the international market but it does not hold in the case
of domestic activities, family enterprises and farms. Studies on child labor show the evidence
that child labor is mainly a rural phenomenon and more than 50 percent of working children are
involved in farm activities (Bhalotra and Heady, 2003; Ray, 2002). Therefore, very few children
(5 percent of total working children) work in the formal sector (Bachman, 2000, 2004), most of
them are employed in the informal sector, in subcontracting family enterprises (Mehrotra and
Biggeri, 2002; Sharma et al., 2000).
Implications for policies are not marginal since most of children work in complementarity with
their parents. The main policy discussion rests on banning child labor.

Inefficiency of child labor ban

If we consider that child labor is a perfect substitute for adult labor, a ban of child labor will have
a positive impact on adult labor. Indeed, the ban will reduce the demand of child labor and
consequently will increase the wage of adults in the labor market. The wage of adults will be
sufficiently high to prevent parents from using child labor for survival purposes. This kind of
policy has led to more skeptical analysis, for instance, Dessy and Pallage (2005) on the worst
form of child labor. In the same way, according to Edmonds and Pavcnik (2003), in the case of
Vietnam, the liberalization of the rice market between 1993 and 1998 engendered a
supplementary flux of income for households, most of them are producers of rice.
This policy involved for the same period a decrease of 20 percent of child labor. The increase of
income from the liberalization of the international trade allowed households to rely less on child
labor. In contrario, a decrease of adult income could involve an increase of child labor. In such a
situation, a ban on child labor could provoke a decrease of income for some families, involving
also an increase of the number of working children.
The hypothesis of complementarity leads to consider such a conclusion. The ban will be
relatively inefficient. Indeed, a ban will not affect the domestic sector. Therefore, the reduction of
income for some families provoked by the ban will oblige them to increase the number of
working children in other forms of activities, particularly in home based activities (Basu and
Van, 1998). Child labor constituting a vital necessity for certain families, they will be obliged to
increase the number of children they will send to work. As we have described earlier in this
paper, child labor is used to prevent family from falling into bondage. If this support is removed,
families who are in a situation of chronic poverty will be deeply affected by such a policy. That
is the case of families involved in bricks production.
Even if brick kiln industry is market oriented, child labor is complementary to adult labor
because bricks' production are organized as a home‐based enterprise.

Roles of NGOs

Few NGOs having the aim of freeing bonded labor lead active action without taking into
consideration the family background, the reason why laborers work in such a situation and why
children work with their parents. Actions of freeing these laborers are more detrimental than
beneficial because with such an action the trustworthiness relationship between laborers and
brokers is no more existing. Nevertheless, NGOs can play an active role in solving the problem
of bondage and of child labor. Their roles could be divers; first they can supply non‐formal
education to parents, which consists of teaching basic mathematical skills. Educated parents can
use this skill to monitor the manager's records in order to prevent them from cheating while
clearing the debt. In this case, productive workers can return home with extra‐money. With this
money workers can buy lands or some assets, which will oblige them to stay in the village. They
will rely more on their assets to survive and less on the advance system. This policy will not end
the phenomenon of child labor but will improve the wealth of households. Their living
conditions improving, they will not have any incentive to send their children to the labor market.
They will invest in their children's education.
Secondly, there is a discontinuity in the schooling of children who repeat classes from years to
years. Those who are over 10 years old leave school by their own because they find no utility to
attain school. To encourage children attaining school, NGOs with the participation of
government can supply vocational training to children in order to permit them in acquiring
specific technical skills. With such a skill children becoming adult will not have to move for
brick kilns. This kind of skill is necessary in Indian villages where the caste system is prominent


Comprised of a compilation and assessment of the contemporary evidence on bonded labor in
India that has appeared in secondary sources, this report demonstrates that new forms of bondage
have emerged in modern agricultural and informal sectors of the economy. Social movements,
economic modernization, and state intervention have helped to engender a reduction of bonded
labor in traditional agricultural settings and in caste-based, long-duration relationships. The
report includes recent academic literature, data from the Government of India, the National
Human Rights Commission, other human rights organizations, and press reports—all of which
contribute to a widely varied bibliography. The review of Indian constitutional law and Supreme
Court rulings on the nature of bonded labor is exceptionally specific. As an up-to-date survey of
the incidence of labor bondage, a widely differentiated practice that is difficult to quantify and
verify, the report provides a clear and comprehensive overview.
An unspoken consensus exists among India’s political leaders that education should not be made
compulsory, since parents should have the right to use or sell the labor of their children. This is a
policy that is frequently suggested in order to end child labor in India. The Indian government
falls behind most other Asian countries in terms of spending on primary education, having
concentrated a disproportionate share of educational resources on higher education, which has
benefited the middle classes while leaving the rural and urban poor “educationally
impoverished.” No country has successfully ended child labor without first making education
compulsory; India has ninety million children outside of the educational system. A move toward
universal education must originate in the Indian legal framework, and official attitudes must
change in order to overcome profound class divisions. This shift would be a means to achieving
the government’s broad, free-market goals by building a human resource base capable of
supporting a more open and competitive economy.