India's bondmen -- freeing them is only a beginning

What first aroused my curiosity was a newspaper story about a 50-year-old man who had just been freed from bondage, after working for 22 years to repay a loan that today would be worth about $110.

I was intrigued by the paper's matter-of- fact approach. The point of the story was not that he had been bonded, or released, but that the government had now given him a grant of land, bullocks, and buffaloes to start a new life as a free man. That was when I decided that my first column from India should be about bonded labor, about the progress made by the government in overcoming an age-old scourge.

But when I got to my first village, I was overwhelmed by a sense of outrage at the pitifully slow rate of that "progress." Ever since then I have asked myself, and others, how it was possible that more than 2 1/2 million people should be held as debt-slaves?

Each case I looked into yielded a different answer. Ashok, who had been bonded since he was 15, could easily have been freed. All that was needed was to threaten the farmer that he would be denounced to the authorities. But when the idea was put to Ashok recently, just before he reached the age of 18, he said, "You'll have to convince my mother. . . ."

Her answer to Ashok was the same as before: "Why do you want to come back? At least you get your two meals a day." To the meddling outsiders she said with a finality that brooked no argument: "My dead husband told me not to."

The husband used to graze the village cattle, and he bequeathed the job to her. She depended on the richer peasants, because only they could afford to pay for her services. They gave her about 60 rupees (about $7) a month, and every day she and the two younger children got a "free" meal -- a handful of cooked millet. But at least she had regular employment and an assured income, which was more than the other landless untouchables had.

If a bonded laborer tried to escape a dozen or two years ago, the landlord's search party tracked him down sooner or later, beat him up, and brought him back to the house. But if Ashok walked out now, the landlord wouldn't raise a hand against him, for fear of the law. That's progress.

But his mother knows -- or thinks she knows -- that the farmers would punish herm by taking their cattle away. She would then join the unemployed, one of whom would promptly and gratefully take her place.

The rick of the village stick together because they are mostly members of the same high caste. The landless belong mostly to a variety of lower castes, like the untouchables, which are divided by centuries of distrust or hostility. They won't often support one another across caste barriers.

One bonded laborer in the village did walk out of the landlord's house. It was the poor who urged him to go back, not the rich. "He gave you money when you needed it, now you let him down." If any of them needed a loan again, they said, the landlord wouldn't trust them. The rebel's father also pleaded with him. "Your elder brother's wedding was on the point of being called off, only the landlord's loan saved it." When the time for his own wedding came, the father assured him, they would send his younger brother to the landlord, and release him. "But now you must go back."

He refused. But the father's concern for his own credit-worthiness, and the villagers' fear that the farmers would punish them by denying them even casual employment, gave the landlord an easy victory: In the end, the father replaced the defaulter with his younger brother.

The fact that bonded labor has been outlawed by the government does not enter into the villagers' calculation. The government is far away, but starvation stares them in the face most of the year. Employment is plentiful only during the busy agricultural season -- for perhaps four months in a year. They are called in to work only from time to time the rest of the year. On the days they work, they get their two meals and wages of about five rupees (about 60 cents). This buys food when there is no work -- but it doesn't buy enough.

So they have to borrow. Sometimes the farmer will oblige with small amounts. These mount up, and then the landless family needs a bigger loan, for a marriage or a funeral, to cope with illness or some other emergency, or even to celebrate a festival. Bonded labor is the answer. The law can be defied with impunity because bonded labor derives not from the cupidity of ruthless landlords, but from the social and economic conditions that condemn much of the rural population to a life of poverty.

To indulge in a sense of outrage, as I did at first, is an easy way out. But those who have tried to do something about it know that freeing a debt-slave is only a beginning, and an uncertain one, for he may voluntarily go back to his master. The bonded labor system cannot be seen apart from the conditions that give rise, in India and in other third world countries, to the countless ways in which the overwhelming majority of mankind is exploited and degraded. Are we willing, or indeed able, to do anything about it? I intend to find out.

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