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India is a country dealing with situational ironies, where on one hand, we provide a democratic status to the country with equality for all citizens but the reality is heart wrenching. There are still certain sections of the society that face discrimination and are engulfed in a vicious circle of unemployment and poverty coupled with illiteracy.
Such economic and social inequalities lead to various deeply encapsulated ill-practices, one of which is extremely rampant, that is, bonded labour which affects the whole family structure where generations over generations are involved in the system.
The practice which started centuries ago continues to plague Indian society till date. International Labour Organization claims that there were around 1.17 crores bonded labourers in 2014. Global slavery index says that nearly 8 million people are living in “modern slavery” in India in 2016.
This article deals with the concept of bonded labour and the laws that abolish this practice. Further, this article discusses the possible causes of the continuance of this practice in India.
What is bonded labour?
Bonded labour is a form of slavery where a person and his successors are made to work for the creditor against lending of a loan, in case of failure to pay back, until the loan is repaid. The people engaged in the system are made to work hard at unreasonable wages. This system is commonly known as Bandhua Mazdoori.
The system is characterised by unfair practices where employers charge high interest on loans along with payment of short wages. Bonded labour has been associated with rural economies where peasants from economically disadvantaged communities are bound to work for the landlords who exploit them a lot.
It is also found in urban pockets but at a lesser lever in unorganized industries such as brick kilns, stone quarries, and coal mining etc. There is no defined time period for this arrangement. This agreement of indefinite bonded labour results into undeniable loss of freedom and curtailment of rights of the debtor.
The provisions in law prohibiting the same are found in the form of various Acts and regulations. The main Act prohibiting bonded labour is Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 which is an extension of Article 23 (Fundamental Rights) of The Constitution of India prohibiting forced labour.
Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976
Bonded labour, after being institutionalised as a stringent system in Indian society for various centuries, was abolished in India by an Ordinance passed in 1975 which later became the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976. Before the formulation of the Act, the efforts to fight bonded labour were only at regional level with legislation Acts found in states like Bihar, Orissa, Madras and Rajasthan.
According to a report formulated by Commission of SC and SR, these legislations were a great failure and finally in 1975, a twenty point programme was promulgated to abolish the system of bonded labour which came into force in 1976. The Act anticipates freeing all bonded labourers, annulling their debts, finding rehabilitative measures and punishing the offenders
- The Act came into force on 25 October, 1975 and extends to whole of India and is implemented by respective states according to their discretion. It comprises of 10 sections.
- It has been established with an objective to provide for the abolition of bonded labour system and prevent economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections.
- The Act has overriding effect and anything inconsistent with this Act does not have enforcing effect and shall be abolished.
- According to Sections 4 and 5, bonded labour is strictly abolished and any custom or agreement related to the same has been made void and inoperative.
- Every labourer is free from his liability to pay debt and is discharged of all his obligations to render bonded labour. No person can institute any proceeding in any court to recovery of debt. No creditor can accept payment against extinguished debt.
- If the creditor took any property under the system, the same has to be restored to the possessor from whom it was seized. Property of the bonded labourer to be freed from mortgage, etc.
- Every bonded labour who has been detained under the system has to be released.
- Under Section 10 of the Act, the state government have been conferred with powers to impose duty on magistrate of the district to ensure the enforcement of the Act. The Act provides for an institutional mechanism in the form of Vigilance Committees which guide the District Magistrate.
The Supreme Court too, in the case of Neerja Chaudhury v. State of Madhya Pradesh, observed that bonded labourers must be identified and released and suitably rehabilitated.
Progress under the Act
- The Act has freed a lot of people from the clutches of this draconian system which is exploitative in nature.
- The Act has helped to lift and improve the economic condition of people who were burdened with the loans and unfair practices by creditor.
- The Act has led to successful integration of rescued labourers back into mainstream society, and helped them in relocation.
- Bonded labour continues to be a significant problem in India due to poor implementation of Acts and policies.
- The district-level Vigilance Committees do not take their duties seriously enough and there are various lacunas in their functioning.
- There is lack of required awareness among people especially in rural areas who are still entrapped in this vicious system.
- The rescue and rehabilitation of workers in not very effective due to lack of adequate services and facilities.
- The Act does not take into consideration children and their rights.
Merely making laws is not enough; they have to be sufficiently enforced. Bonded labour is violative of basic human rights of labourers, which as a system need to be tackled and eliminated vigorously and efficaciously.
Though a lot of progress has been made under the Act, there has to be more vigilance to eradicate the system from Indian society. The loopholes and negligence present have to be completely removed.
Moreover measures have to be taken to improve the implementation of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act. Further, bonded labour cases should be tackled in fast track courts and justice should be provided to the labourers.
Bonded labour in India is a result of social and economic factors. In spite of the fact that enactments were confined and established assurances in form of constitutional provisions are allowed against this draconian framework, it can be only helpful when there is a powerful implementation of the laws, end of class based partialities and open mindfulness. Till the point a law doesn’t instil its presence at the lowest levels of society, it is regarded to be insufficient, in spite of having got statutory acknowledgment.
Henceforth reformative and preventive methodology ought to be followed. This can be done by keeping a well maintained record of bonded labourers and taking necessary steps to eliminate the system right from the grass-root levels. This system should be severely condemned and punished. Proper implementation of rules and regulations could do wonders and make Indian society completely free of such oppressive systems.
Author: Sakshi Sethi from Rajiv Gandhi National University Of Law, Patiala.
Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.