A stone for Bhanwar Lal. Occupation: slave

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Life in Rajasthan’s Baran district reveals a reality far removed from what the State claims, finds Anumeha Yadav.

Photographs by Dijeshwar Singh

Bhanwar Lal, 50
Been hali all his life. He has worked for the past four years without wages to pay off his last loan of Rs. 30,000. His landlord, Harichand Chowdhary, has slapped Rs. 1.5 lakh in interest on this and on the wheat he gave him. “He threatens bodily harm if I report this to the officials. There are 12 halis on his land in Bhanwargarh but they won’t speak up,” says Lal.

ASHOK, A gaunt 29-year-old farmer, speaks haltingly. “If my master hears of this meeting, he will kick me to death,” he says, as he looks around the dung-layered courtyard of a hut in Amroli village in Baran district, a five-hour bus ride from Jaipur, Rajasthan. He describes the relief he felt when, three years back, he was hired as a farm-hand for Rs 2,000 a month by Pravin Singh, a rich farmer. This wage of Rs 66 a day, about half the state minimum wage of Rs 130, was not much, just enough to get him dreaming of saving up for a bigha or two in his village Chainpura. Except this April, despite a year of work, this landless Sahariya tribal got no wages for his work. Instead, his landlord claimed he owed him Rs 30,000 in interest on his ‘wage’ and another Rs 20,000 for the wheat he was given that year. “No one else got any wage either,” says Ashok of 35 others from his community in similar contracts here.

Three kilometres away, in village Khandela, 125 Sahariyas are in a similar bind. Rich landowners – Sikh, Jat, Muslim – promise them a lump sum of money at a distant date, ask them to work all year on their farms for a few kilos of wheat, trick them by piling on massive interest on the promised sum as well as the grain they give them to eat, demanding another year of labour without wages to write off the ‘debt’. “No matter how much I work, every year I owe him an even bigger sum,” says Sushpal, 45, who has been labouring under his endless burden of debt since he was 12. Ramkaran, who spent the last year sweeping the landlord’s house after borrowing Rs 8,500 last year, is now under a debt of Rs 6,000, an interest of 70 percent a year that the 17-year-old may lose much of his youth and spirit paying off before he earns his freedom, if at all. Babulal, a middle-aged man, has tears in his eyes as he narrates why he is the only one among six brothers to have got out of the debt cycle of their childhoods: he lost his hand after getting electrocuted watering his landlord’s fields this July.

Village after village, TEHELKA found the same story of penury, want, and helplessness. In Jawaaipura, a hamlet of Sahariya tribals built on the periphery of Ganeshpura village, one to three male members of all the 50 households are bonded. In Khankara village, the younger members of the community count 20 of their peers trapped in this exploitation. But the Baran administration flatly denies everything. When Mamta, a local community worker from this tribe, took 16 families from Eklera village working in near-slavery conditions to Jaipur to a dharna for increasing MGNREGA wages in October, Baran District Collector Naveen Jain distanced himself saying these tribals had migrated from Madhya Pradesh.

When Mamta and her colleagues from Sankalp highlighted the plight of one of them, Om Prakash, who worked without pay on Hansraj Dhakarh’s farm after borrowing Rs 4,000 six years ago and had been beaten mercilessly by his landlord, the state government ordered that these 16 families be freed of their bonded debt. Two weeks later, the administration handed each of them Rs 1,000 under a centrally-sponsored bonded labour rehabilitation scheme that has not been revised since 1978. But even this instance was not enough to goad the administration into acknowledging the problem.

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot did not respond to TEHELKA’s questionnaire about the plans for rehabilitating these 16 families and surveying the district to identify the hundreds others, including over 30 families interviewed by TEHELKA in six villages, several bonded since three generations. “Who says they are bonded? This is hali, this area’s traditional practice where people work as agricultural labourers in return for an advance. Banning this will derail the system,” says collector Jain. The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976 lists hali among 31 forms of bonded debt. The constitution bans all of them. So what ‘system’ will get derailed, besides one of a feudal collusion between local landlords and an indifferent administration?

Jain’s response is symptomatic not just of Rajasthan government’s denial of the extent of the problem, but the blinkers the Indian State has put on too. The authorities seem unwilling to investigate instances of slave labour that jar with its self-image of a modern economy. Those working on the issue since the 1980s say the government has been in denial. “They asked us to remove the category ‘bonded labour’ in committees set up to identify families Below Poverty Line,” says Harsh Mander, a former IAS officer and a member of the National Advisory Council. India was the first in South Asia to make a law against bonded labour in 1976. But since 1978, when the National Sample Survey Organisation estimated 3.43 lakh bonded labourers in 16 states, government reports quote ‘nil’ in columns counting these workers with no resources and few freedoms.

Almost no one has been prosecuted for keeping people in bondage. “There is no count of the Dalit and tribal labourers in bondage in agriculture, besides immigrant labourers in new forms of bondage in informal sectors,” points out JNU economist Ravi Srivastava, author of a 2005 ILO report on this problem. Srivastava quotes how Kol tribals in working in bondage in quarries in Allahabad are one of the few groups that were able to come out of bondage 10 years back after they got collective mining rights following a long-drawn struggle.

In Baran, the government allotted work at a MGNREGA site to the 16 Sahariya families freed of bondage after being cornered about the issue at the dharna. These 16, along with hundreds of others, remain vulnerable for want of access to credit, or a long-term source of income outside systems like hali. In the past four years, gram sabhas submitted 1,030 land claims under the Forest Rights Act 2006 in Kishanganj and Shahabad blocks. The government distributed land to just 354. “The landlords took over the one savings cooperative at Bhanwargarh. Sahariyas lost their years-old access to timber, gum, mahua in the forest and get nothing under what exists now, ” says community worker Motilal. “An advance that labourers could take against their MGNREGA job cards could be one option,” suggests Mander.

Long-term solutions and systematic changes, though essential, are not even on the minds of those like Pratap. His voice falters as he shares details of his bonded debt of the past 15 years to his landlord Umrao Singh. “Those 16, who were they working for? Their master may not have been this cruel,” he wonders.

Geeta and daughter, 35 & 5
“My husband is hali for Rs. 15,000 and I work as a day labourer,” says Geeta. One to three male members of all the 50 households in Jawaipura are bonded.

 

Kalu Lal & Popan Bai’s family
All male members of Kalu’s (third from left) family were released from bondage in November. “My husband became hali for wheat when he was 12. My grandsons became hali to get their father released — Raghubir for Rs. 12,000, Sitaram for Rs. 10,000 and Malkeet for Rs. 13,000. Our landlord threatened to chop off everyone’s limbs if we tried going to Jaipur like Om Prakash,” says Kalu’s wife Popan Bai (fourth from left).

Arjun, 60
“I became hali for 240 kilos of wheat a year in my childhood. When my two sons turned 12, I made them hali for Rs. 14,000 each to a landowner in Khyawada. The following year, the landlord said they had Rs. 15,000 each matha chadha (bonded debt). No matter how much we work, the debt keeps increasing every year.”

Sita, 50
“My son became hali this June in Jawaipura for Rs. 5,000. He is not even 16 years old. I fear for him because the landlord’s wife says we owe Rs. 10,000 in interest already.” A few kilometres away in Khandela village, 125 families are in bonded debt.

 

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