Some people told me that bonded labor was a thinly disguised and widely prevalent form of slavery or serfdom. Others said it was nothing of the kind. Reformers quoted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as saying it was "a barbarous practice." They showed me newspaper stories about girls who had been shipped in the hundreds to faraway places to serve a bonded laborers, and worse.
But piqued government officials pointed out that Mrs. Gandhi's speech was made half a dozen years ago to proclaim the outlawing of bonded labor.
In the village I met Ravi, a bright 13-year-old boy with the eyes of a frightened old man. It was days before he managed to sneak out of the landlord's house to talk to me. Every morning, he said, the farmer woke him at 5 o'clock, and then went back to sleep. Ravi cleaned the cowshed and then grazed the cattle for the rest of the day.
What days off did he get? Ravi looked up, as if not comprehending. Did he work every day? Every day, he repeated dully. He got two meals a day, and two sets of clothes a year. That was all. "Clothes?" He was wearing one set now. A dirty vest, torn shorts, the grubby towel wrapped round him against the evening chill.
He had been bonded for a year. How did it come about? "My family needed the money. I had to do as my father said." How long would it last? He shrugged his shoulders. Didn't he mind? "My father wouldn't have done it if it wasn't necessary." He paused. "It had to be."
When he grew up, would he bond his own son? He examined the stranger's face for clues. Had he come to make trouble? No, he answered hesitantly, he wouldn't bond his own son. He was darting glances in all directions, stirring uneasily. It was time to go back.
Another week went by before Ravi's father agreed to meet the inquisitive stranger. At 48, he was an old man -- emaciated, with a line face, grizzled beard, a ragged towel round his head. Why, the stranger asked him, had he bonded Ravi?" "For our livelihood," he answered jerkily, resentfully. "We have nothing. Only our labor. This is the sixth year of the drought. So there's little work."
Then it all came out in a rush. "No food, no money." Ravi was their only means of "livelihood." They had to bond him to survive, he added guiltily but also crossly, as if exasperated by having to explain the obvious.
How much did he get for his son? Five hundred rupees (about $55). How did he spend it? "For our livelihood," he repeated. "But how?" the stranger persisted.
The father thought he was being blamed. "How I solve my problems is my own affair. I had to take him out of school, I had to," he blurted. He covered his face. Was it shame, or an attempt to conceal a father's guilt and pain?
When would Ravi go back to school? "At the end of the year, when I repay the 500." But where would he get the money? No answer. He looked like a cornered animal.
Did I have the right to pester him in my search for understanding? "The only way out is, somebody else will have to be bonded," he muttered hopelessly. "Maybe I have to go into bondage myself," he grumbled. And then he asked: "What do others know of our problems?"
I wanted to explain that I had to put these questions in order to make those "others" understand, maybe even care. But I didn't. How long can one go on tormenting a man so that others might be enlightened? Perhaps I had done enough harm for one day. But how else am I to learn how three-quarters of the world's population lives in the developing countries?
Fifty percent of India's population lives below the poverty line, and in other developing countries the proportion is often higher. These are the conditions that give rise to bondage, which can take many forms. But I have been asked here: Why burrow in the dirt, when India has thriving new industries, artificial earth satellites, impressive agricultural development projects?
Because, to appreciate India's progress, one must grasp the difficulties India had to overcome to achieve it. One must learn first how most of India's people still live, come to understand what made Ravi's father do what he did. A quarter of the globe's population in the developed world enjoys four-fifths of the world's income. The other three-quarters subsist on one-fifth of the total. How do they manage to live, sometimes more happily in the midst of poverty than people live in the West, and how long will they accept their lot?