NOVEMBER 2002




NOVEMBER 2002 Contents


 South Asian Travels


 Arrival in Kabul
 Spirit of the city
 Cultural Suicide
 Panjsher Valley 


 Natural Heritage

Sundarbans of Bangladesh


 Recognising Depression

 Real Issues

 Bonded Labour of South Asia


 Letter from Pakistan

 From the pages of History

 Maldive Islands - in 1884


 'Rudraksha' - a review
 Artiste: poumi

 Around us

 Coffee break



 South Asian Events in
 London & Washington DC

 November   8 - Nov 14
 November 15 - Nov 21


 the craft shop

 the print gallery


 Silk Road on Wheels

 The Road to Freedom

Enduring Spirit

 Parsis-Zoroastrians of

The Moonlight Garden

Contemporary Art in Bangladesh





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Bonded Labour


Roopa Bakshi


"[Bonded labourers] are non-beings, exiles of civilization, living a life worse than that of animals, for the animals are at least free to roam about as they like; This system, under which one person can be bonded to provide labour for another for years and years until an alleged debt is supposed to be wiped out, which never seems to happen during the lifetime of the bonded labourer, is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to build"
- Justice PN Bhagwati, Indian Supreme Court, 1982


construction worker- sewa.JPG (32729 bytes) indchild.JPG (9447 bytes)

Bonded Labour is the existing form of slavery. Unconstitutional, yet present in most of the south Asian countries, bonded labour is not an issue that political parties have on their agenda, nor is it a mainstream concern. Yet, 20 million of the humanity is trapped and victimised in a system that has defied and continues to defy and deny human rights to men, women and children.

Prevalent in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, this form of slavery has continued to exist for decades or even perhaps centuries in these areas. It is an exploitative system whereby generations of workers labour relentlessly to repay an undocumented debt of a parent or a grandparent or even a great-grandparent. Most of the bonded labourers are found in the agricultural sector and the construction industry, where they often spend a lifetime crushing stones or making bricks in exchange for two sparse meals and an undignified shelter for living. It is a vicious and a ruthless cycle that leaves the vulnerable section of our societies with little choice and no support.

Mechanics of Bondage

When adversity and hardship hits the poor in the form of natural disasters, or failed crops, they are compelled to migrate elsewhere for the sake of their survival and their families’. Hungry and impoverished in every possible way, they often fall prey to the opportunistic and greed-driven feudals, landlords, and quarry owners, always on the lookout for a pool of cheap labour. They are promised two meals and shelter, and perhaps a token sub-human wage, in return for hard labour. Entire families fall into the trap, for it seemingly resolves the two immediate requirements – food and shelter. The system bares its fangs, once the worker, who now needs clothes, medicines, and other basics of life, has no money to pay for such essentials. The landlord/employer readily loans him a pittance, in many instances amounts less than $10, to be returned, with interest, over a certain period of time. This is not to be. The debt clock has started to tick and keeps ticking faster every time a child falls ill, every time a child needs a pencil or paper to write on, or when the time approaches to marry a child off. The loan amounts remain unpaid – for the simple reason that the victims do not have any money to repay – the bulk of their wages are paid in meals and makeshift shelters. At times children are pledged as collateral for loans. Thence begins the generational journey of human indignity that takes its toll from the children and grandchildren of the unsuspecting, illiterate, and gullible humanity who unknowingly took the first step toward this bondage – only to protect and save their families – not to make them subjects of this oppression.

Though bonded labour is unconstitutional in all the countries mentioned above, yet the system prevails. Local politics has kept the system of bonded labour alive yet invisible, through a corrupt alliance between the local law enforcement agencies and the feudals, landlords, and other business owners. Often the landlord is also the locally elected politician. It is only in recent years that a group of dedicated individuals took it upon themselves to challenge the existing feudal order and assist the freeing of many individuals and families from bonded labour. Vidyullata and Vivek Pandit in Maharashtra (India), and more recently Swami Agnivesh of Delhi (India) and his Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) have spearheaded protests against bonded labour. Their call to human rights was heard across the borders in Pakistan and Nepal, where similar societies were set up to help resolve the plight of bonded labour. The success in securing the fundamental right of the bonded labours has been slow, and painful – but the success stories that follow the rehabilitation of these individuals are real life chronicles of resilience and a positive spirit despite a shamelessly exploited past. The silence of the society has tacitly legitimised this human abuse. There is a need for more pressure groups, national and international, to fight the system of bonded labour – and a greater need to productively rehabilitate the freed individuals and families in the society they rightfully belong to.


Facts associated with bonded labour:

  • Subjected to physical and sexual violence

  • Near-starvation diets

  • Kept under tight surveillance and at times in private prisons, in shackles

  • Lack of statistics 

  • Conservative estimates of the numbers of bonded labourers indicate there are at least 2 million in India, approximately 1.7 million in Pakistan (mostly in southern Sindh and southern Punjab), over 100,000 in Nepal and no estimates are available for Bangladesh.

  • In India and Nepal, underprivileged castes and economically marginalized people often form the bulk of bonded labour. In Pakistan, it is dominantly the Hindu minority that is both socially disadvantaged and economically marginalized – that forms the pool of bonded labour.

  • The Tharu community of bonded labour in western Nepal typically gets 2 meals a day and a sack of grain at harvest time as the only form of payment

  • The offending landlords and feudals are at times the elected politicians of the area; if not, they are protected by the local law enforcement officials

  • Little public concern and absence of judicial activism







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