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INDIA: Bonded for life: Anantiah's story

Arpan Tulsyan

Aashaiah had borrowed Rs. 900 from a wealthy man at the village to buy medicines for his wife. With nothing else to pledge, Aashaiah forfeited his labour against the debt. Unfortunately, the money could not rescue the woman; she died, and the aggrieved husband soon followed her. They left behind two orphaned children. The eight-year-old son Anantiah was now responsible for bringing up his kid sister and repaying the loan. It was decided by the creditor that Anantiah would work for him for 9 years in the fields, repaying Rs 100 every year.

Though not uncommon elsewhere in India, this narration belongs to Narayanpur, a mucky village in Vikarabad Mandal of Andhra Pradesh in 1971. India, a Sovereign Democratic Republic, adopted a Constitution in 1949, directing the government to ban all forms of forced labour. That is, Article 23 of the Indian Constitution bans trafficking in human beings and forced labour.

Nevertheless, the first legislation against bonded labour took a good quarter of a century to come by with the Bonded Labour Act being passed only in 1976. It defines ¡¥bonded labour¡¦ as per three important criteria: Debt or advance against which labour is rendered, payment below minimum wages and the absence of freedom of changing employment. During the three decades since the legislation, prosecution has been grossly neglected and most vigilance committees created by the Act, are virtually non functional.

Untouchable labour

The rate of repayment was kept deliberately low as the ¡¥master¡¦ insisted that Anantiah was too young to command a grown man¡¦s wage and also, because he had low visibility in one eye. He gave Anantiah two meals a day, a lunch of four small taidal (a coarse cereal) roti¡¦s and dinner comprising Korabua (inferior quality rice). Anantiah took the food home and shared it with his sister. He toiled in the fields cultivating food, but once the crop was harvested, he wasn¡¦t allowed to touch it. Meals were served to him from a distance and his vessels were not allowed in the house. Anantiah is a Dalit, the polluting caste that most bonded labourers belong to.

According to government figures i.e. the Ministry of Labour, Annual Report 2000- 2001, page 181, (Quoted in Human Rights Watch, Small Change, January 2003, page 41) 86.6 per cent of bonded labourers belong to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Presently, it is argued that distribution of castes in bondage varies greatly depending on the sector of activities. However, some estimates suggest that Dalits may continue to constitute about 100 percent of the bonded labourers in agriculture.

"...The eight-year-old son Anantiah was now responsible for bringing up his kid sister and repaying the loan.  It was decided by the creditor that Anantiah would work for him for 9 years in the fields, repaying Rs 100 every year..."


Straining for freedom

At the end of five years, when Anantiah had repaid Rs 500, he had to take a further advance of Rs. 600 to arrange for his sister¡¦s marriage. This added six more years of bondage to his life. Soon, an aunt thoughtfully arranged for Anantiah¡¦s marriage with a girl from Hyderabad. The marriage lasted barely a few months, as the girl could not adjust to the tough conditions of his village. Anantiah was left without a family again.

Anantiah had two acres of inherited land that did not yield much. However, with unwavering determination to move out of bondage, Anantiah cultivated it alongside his master ¡¦s. Working assiduously for years, Anantiah was successful in repaying the loan at Rs. 100 per year. He was 22 years old when he repaid the loan completely. All these years, the repayment rate, or the price of one year¡¦s labour that was initially fixed at Rs. 100, remained the same.

When free, Anantiah migrated to the adjoining Tandur Mandal for better livelihood opportunities, and engaged in various odd jobs from construction, to working in stone quarries and agriculture. He met with a woman and they had a daughter. Diligent and thrifty as he was, Anantiah put together some savings. He invested them in a little piece of land and built a house, anticipating marriage.

Unfortunately, the woman refused to marry him, citing caste as a reason. Her infuriated relatives threatened Anantiah (for having dared to procreate with a high caste woman) into transferring the home in the name of the woman. Anantiah¡¦s voice trembles, but he says he does not regret it because he truly loved the woman, and built the house for her to live.

After this, Anantiah returned to his village, only to face another misfortune. In his absence, a distant relative had appropr iated hi s land. Politically influential as this relative was, he hosted a red flag on the land, symbolising his authority over it. Anantiah¡¦s pleas to get back his land went unheard. The land, through agriculturally unproductive, faces the main road of the village, and with expanding twin cities; prices were sure to soar in near future. Anantiah called a Panchayat meeting, giving away Rs 5000 in bribe, but to no avail. Anantiah could not afford to press the matter further.

To pay the bribe, Anantiah had to borrow money from his old master and put himself in bondage again. With nowhere else to go, Anantiah started to live with his aunt and further borrowed a sum of Rs1000 for his daily expenditure. At present, bondage has disguised itself into newer, smaller and contractual forms, emerging in modern industries and informal sectors, like brick kilns, stone quarries and the silk industry in particular. However, the more traditional form characterised by debt and intergenerational bondage continues to survive, and is not merely residual. Various studies (e.g. CEC, Labour File, volume 4, no. 3), have shown that though agricultural operations are becoming less feudal, nevertheless, the bonded labour system has attuned itself to the capitalist mode of agriculture.

"...though agricultural operations are becoming less feudal, nevertheless, the bonded labour system has attuned itself to the capitalist mode of agriculture..."


Shared dilapidation

Three years later, the same aunt arranged for Anantiah¡¦s marriage, again. After marriage, Anantiah moved on to live in an old discarded Gram Panchayat office that lay vacant in the village. He draws an analogy between dilapidated Gram Panchayat office and his life. In the house, the roof is broken, and during the rains, enough water fills the house to make his utensils float. Similarly, his hope of a better life for which he struggled in his youth is now shattered, filling life with an enduring sorrow. In the house, there isn¡¦t any cot, bed sheets or clothes. Its fragile old walls can collapse at any moment. Similar is the emptiness of Anantiah¡¦s life that has no joy, no freedom and no ambition.

Recently, Anantiah was granted a house under Indira Awas Yojna¡Xa government scheme to provide grants for construction of houses to members of scheduled caste and scheduled tribes communities, freed bonded labourers and to rural poor below the poverty line. But the first instalment of money has been delayed beyond his patience.

The exigencies in life continue to befall this young man. Most serious are the health expenditures that cannot be ignored. Last year his infant son suffered Jaundice. Anantiah not only had to borrow money for treatment but also had to work many extra hours, past midnight, to be allowed a day off to take the child to the government hospital at the nearest town, Vikarabad. For two weeks, he hopped between hospital and the master¡¦s fields to balance labour and familial responsibility. These days, he missed his dinner at the master¡¦s place and lived on a cup of black tea.

Anantiah¡¦s wife suffered a miscarriage last year and since then she has been in poor health. The family had to bear additional expenditure for her operation and also forgo the meagre but essential wages she contributed by engaging in casual wage labour. If the government delays money for the house under its own scheme, should he trust the same government to make available credit for his needs that are instantaneous?

He regrets his near blindness in one eye. Although he works as much as any other, his visual challenge becomes an excuse; making the repayment of his loan a much slower process that it would otherwise be. Many, like Anantiah, adopt bondage as an immediate coping strategy when faced with distressful situations; however, it only leads to further tightening of the trap. Bonded labourers are paid very little and much of this little amount is deducted against the debt. Therefore, it further increases dependence on debt for survival, rather than enabling accumulation of savings for repayment. Once a person is caught in bondage, his poverty soars beyond income.

Hungry body, denied soul

Anantiah is given two meals a day for his labour. As before, he eats lunch in the fields and takes dinner home to be shared with his family. Most often, he gets rice with some tamarind chutney and red chillies. The food given is usually leftovers, never hot and has very little curry. Even if Anantiah is hungry, he prefers to sleep after filling his stomach with water, than go begging. He associates shame not so much with begging as an act, as men do have to resort to it under extreme circumstances; but with being turned down. ¡§If a person in the village is living with hunger, and the neighbouring house has food, who should go to whom? If the later waits for the former to solicit, it is not worth soliciting from him¡¨, he asserts.

His working hours are long, sometimes as long as 10-12 hours, particularly during the sowing and harvesting season. If he gets even a little late for work¡Xhis job starts at five in the morning¡Xhe has to endure abuses from his master. And untouchability prevails¡Xalmost unabated. Festivals are irrelevant in his life, but he eats whatever is given to him by his employer, on festivals, as on any other days. In the last 6 years, he has bought no new clothes for himself. He can afford only that which is donated by his master.

Anantiah has been given an Antyodaya ration card. Andhra has a food coupon system to access the Public Distribution System, whereby coupons are distributed annually and ration is released only after the coupon is produced. Anantiah misplaced his coupons when the house flooded during rains, and therefore the ration dealer refused to let him collect his ration. Only after talking to the Sarpanch¡Xhead of a democratically elected body in a village known as Panchayat¡Xcould he persuade the ration dealer to give him 20 kg of rice without coupons.

Labouring towards freedom

In its latest annual report (2007-08), the Ministry of Labour claims that 'as a result of concerted efforts made by government through various antipoverty programmes, awareness and sensitization etc. the incidence of bonded labour is declining.¡¨ Anantiah is aware of the Bonded Labour Act; yet, he will not appeal for release or accept his bondage status to the government. He is also aware of his limitations and survival needs in life. His poverty is chronic; livelihood potential in agriculture is extremely low and subject to seasonal fluctuations. Loans have to be taken to tide over seasonal shortages or contingent expenditure. A bank loan is a cumbersome, long drawn process, while his needs are more immediate.

Being bonded helps him survive while freedom means having no anchor. The government will not understand his exigency and vulnerability. In the sense of emotional coping, his master is his patron, compassionate and benevolent. So great is the dependency, that without him, Anantiah would have no existence.

"What reason do I have to want to be free?" he asks finally. He has his reason to live a bonded life. It is to repay his loan, through his labour and in his lifetime. He wants a free life for his son, free of inherited debts.

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