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All of the issues that VSJ and DDVA work on are strongly interlinked. Bonded Labourers tend to be from lower caste groups, who make up the majority of the State’s landless population, whose women suffer from discrimination in a highly patriarchal society and whose children often have to forgo schooling so that they may support the family income.
Bonded Labour
Bonded labour is a modern day form of slavery which is being practiced across India and Punjab’s many labour intensive industries. The ILO estimates that 11.7 million people are in forced labour across the Asia-Pacific region, of whom the majority are in debt bondage. As it is widespread and badly monitored, it is very difficult to know just how many people in India are in debt bondage. We estimate that in Punjab alone, there are some 500,000 bonded labourers!
The root causes of bonded labour are complex and are shifting as India’s economy and society develops and changes. Systemic social and economic issues such as caste discrimination, landlessness and homelessness, worker poverty and vulnerability, employee and agent exploitation, and ineffective governance, all contribute to the prevalence of the debt bondage system across India and Punjab.
Slavery and forced labour have been outlawed by the international community and the Indian government, yet bonded labour continues to prevail. Two International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, No. 29 and No. 105 - which India have ratified – prohibit the use of such labour, whilst Article 4 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights prohibits “forced labour”.
The Indian Government has also attempted to extinguish bonded labour in 1976 with passing of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act. However, not helped by the State Government of Punjab denying the existence of bonded labour within its territory, there is very little help from authorities charged with abolishing it. Thus, despite all these provisions and assurances, the problem of Bonded Labour in India, and Punjab, still exists.
Those who get into debt bondage often do so because of their desperate financial state and their need for stable employment. They will be offered a monetary advance by an employer or agent working on behalf of the employer and will then be trapped into working for that employer until the debt is paid off. They are then forced to work for long hours in poor conditions receiving little and barely getting paid enough to meet their subsistence needs. Often families will be forced to work in a bid to pay off the debt – forcing children out of school and condemning the family to future economic vulnerability.
Former slave - now an Emancipator
“Seventeen years of my life I worked as a bonded labourer, a long period of hardship with lot of physical and economical exploitation. Gone now are the cheerless days when I was a serf. Life is now beautiful with zeal and many hopes. Lakhwinder, aged 41 from Malwal village in the district of Ferozpur, Punjab.
My farther was an illiterate man had a dream to educate me and my other siblings so we could join the government services. Our fortune, however, was not so good. His dreams were shattered when one of his hands was amputated while working as a bonded labourer in a farm house. At that time, I was 14 years old. The farmer turned my father out of job and instead of giving him any compensation for his permanent disability, he demanded a bonded debt.
That year, the heavy rains damaged the roof of my mud house and we had to no where for shelter. My family was also struggling to get any food. In anticipation of the winter season ahead, my parents had no other option than to take me out of school. One landlord Sukhchen Singh of my village offered an advance of Rs.10,000/- to my family to engage in work with him. Though it was not enough to satisfy my father’s existing debt and to repair the damaged house, we accepted it as there was no other alternative.
The landlord fixed annual wage of Rs.15,000/-, and I was to stay at his farm house where I worked as a servant at his beck and call. My daily work included looking after ten cattle, whom I had to feed, milk and clean up after. I also used to tend to his fields, irrigating them and performing many other related tasks. The landlord gave me used clothes and substandard food during the period of my employment with him. I became depressed as I was not afforded any time to go home and see my family and friends. Whenever my father visited me I would weep. He always tried console me by saying “it is not only you, but the fate of every child born into our community.”
At the age of 20 I married, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my children having to suffer as I had. Whenever I asked the landlord about my accounts (paying off my debt), he used to laugh and say that I couldn’t repay it in my entire lifetime, as it has already exceeded Rs.40,000. I worked for him for 17 years. I felt that God has made me for the landlord and believed that whatever he said was the rule.
In 2003, Volunteers for Social Justice organized a meeting in my village, and my father got chance to attend it. Through him I learnt that bonded labourers such as myself could be freed and that they could be discharged from the obligation of paying a bonded debt. Thus, when the opportunity arose, I deserted my work and went to the VSJ office in Phillaur, around 100kms from my village .They provided me the legal assistance to liberate me from bonded labour. As the legal proceedings took a long time, I had no place to live as I could not return to my village. VSJ provided me food, shelter and medical aid, and I stayed for around three months in their office. During that period the landlords of my village threatened my family in a bid to bring me back to work, claiming that they would have to pay the price for my escape.
After three months, however, I was able to return home as a free labourer with out any fear. My actions encouraged other twenty five other bonded labourers in my village to follow the take similar action. We are all now free and we are all united. The landlords have since changed their ways. Many of them have voluntarily waived debts of the bonded labourers and made the working terms more congenial. The message of our liberation spread in the area and through me, many bonded labourers have been identified and released.
Now, I am capable of meeting magistrates, police officials and other officers in my district for the redressal of grievances of people in my community. As a free labourer, I found employment on a combine harvester as helper. My interest in this work has seen me promoted to the position of foreman of the combine, and now I repair and operate my combine harvester. What is more, my monthly earning is around Rs.12,000 and I am carrying forward the dream that my father had for me; I am giving education to all my three sons and daughter
“The people of our community have lived in slavery for centuries, our children too would have had similar future if VSJ hadn’t worked in this area. Their support has enabled us to live with freedom and dignity. Our children are in school and I hope one day, they will become good human beings.”
Scheduled Caste Atrocities
Though the conventional view of Punjab is that of a caste free state, lacking a significant number of the traditional dominant upper caste groups, this is not the case. In the absence of the typical dominant castes as a major group in the state, the boundaries of “upper” have shifted and the lower castes continue to be treated in a sub-human manner.
The population of Scheduled Castes in Punjab is estimated to be 7,028,723 which amounts to 28.9% of the total population of the State. This is proportionately the highest of any other state in the country. In many rural areas, where ones caste is well known by his neighbours, people from lower castes can be treated in a sub-human manner. Caste discrimination can takes its shape in many forms, be it stigmatisation in the community, verbal and physical abuse, harassment and exploitation of women
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 ensures that this group are not marginalised in
society, reserving them a certain number of seats in Parliament, for example. However, in reality the stigma attached to their caste remains. VSJ-DDVA seek to empower these communities, teaching them that they should not tolerate being treated in a subordinate manner. We also make them aware of schemes that exist for them and educate them of the laws that are in place for their protection. This way, we help empower them so that they can articulate their wishes and achieve their desires.
Story of Gurjant Singh
Gurjant Singh, along with 149 other labourers in the village of Daled Singh Wala, was a bonded agricultural labourer. They weren’t paid their wages, they weren’t allowed to leave their places of work, their employers would beat them and their children were not receiving an education.
One day Gurjant Singh discovered that a minimum wage existed for agricultural work after which he arranged a meeting with VSJ, having been informed about their work. The meeting with VSJ made him aware of his, and his fellow labourers’ rights and when he returned to his village he began to spread awareness amongst his colleagues. The landlords, worried about what was happening placed bonded debts of Rs.100,000 on each of their labourers and demanded that they be paid if they want to be free.
This created a struggle between the two communities, divided along caste lines between the Dalits (the labourers) and the Jat Sikhs (the landlords). The struggle escalated and the landlords declared a social boycott on all Dalits in the village. This prevented all Dalits from getting any work, using local busses, from buying food and from using village common land which the Dalit community used for their toilet.
  Gurjant Singh
Even the proposed upgrade of a school from primary to secondary was prevented in the fear that it would enable the scheduled castes to receive an education. At the same time a Dalit women was being harassed by Jats in the village, which led to their arrest and further tension between the two communities. The social boycott continued for two year after the labourers had all been declared free by the state.
This forced them to find work in a nearby village in which they received work at the rates of pay they had been demanding from landlords in their village. Today, however, the boycott in the village boycott has ended and the two communities live alongside one another respectfully and peacefully.
Child Labour
Though child labour is nationally and internationally condemned it is still widespread throughout India. Some estimates put the number of child labourers in the country at 100 million and according to the Government of India, 2 million of these are working in hazardous industries. The problem of child labour in South Asia is linked directly to the existence of poverty as the income they bring in contributes to the family’s survival. The issue is highly complex with no easy solutions available to solve the problem.
The problem also exists in Punjab. State Government statistics show that 48.4% children from thirteen Scheduled castes in the State of Punjab are engaged in child labour. Many of these children are forced into work in a bid to avoid starvation and to help their parents meet basic household expenses. As well as missing out on the luxury of a childhood, they are also deprived of an education.
The 1986 Child Labour Act prohibits children under the age of from working whilst laws such as the Right to Education Act 2009 seeks to ensure that every child, regardless of their place in society is able to access some form of free education. However, these laws are rarely adhered to or implemented which means that many of India’s poor children do not get the education they need and deserve.
VSJ acknowledge the importance of educating children as they will be the future workers and leaders of the country. Therefore, we work with children to educate them about the rights and to make them aware of the opportunities that exist for them. Within this, we specifically target children from the Dalit and scheduled caste communities who are unaware of opportunities that exist for them or of the importance of education. We also try to identify leaders within these children’s groups so that they can be more self reliant and not require constant outside support.
Story of Rajinder Singh
Sixteen year old Rajinder Singh migrated to Punjab one and a half years before with a few friends in search of some seasonal agricultural work. In this time, he had served as a bonded labourer for two landlords who happened to be brothers from the village of Majari in Punjab’s Nawashehar district. The employers gave him Rs.2000 as an advance when he began and refused to pay him his wages. When he did request money they would only give him one or two hundred rupees. In a year of work he earned only Rs.4000. To appease Rajinder, the landlord claimed that he’d received his entire pay when he decided he wanted to return to his home in UP.
When that day came and Rajinder told Majinder that he was going, the landlord became furious and began to beat him up. These beatings became more common until Rajinder decided one day to run away back to UP. However, after a few days back at home and in need of money, he returned to Punjab for work.
In Nawashehar, Rajinder met Majinder, who managed to talk to him and get him to come back to his house. On arrival, Rajinder was tied up and beaten by both Majinder and his brother Karanjeet Singh. He was then forced to work for the two brothers who kept a close eye on him. He would be called upon at all times of day or night and was not paid any wages. This practie continued for six months and only came to an end on a day that the two brothers happened to be away from their homes. It was then that he ran away and met a DDVA activist and was brought to our offices.
Land & Livelihood
Those who are worst affected by poverty are often without land and without jobs. In Punjab, where many families have neither their own land nor a stable livelihood, this is no different. What is more, the majority of those who are landless in Punjab tend to be from lower caste groups, of whom only 37% participate in regular work. These people, therefore, are without access to their own land and have no stable means of livelihood. They are constantly dependant on others for both housing and work which, because of their caste, can be difficult to find or hold on to.
The implementation of Land Reforms in Punjab has been a major failure. The Land Ceiling Programme, which permits each family to own a maximum of 17.5 acres, has too many loopholes. As such, Dalit groups have been victims of upper castes who buy this land under the pretext of it being used for an exempted purpose and then kick the lower castes off the land.
To address the issue, VSJ-DDVA has been instrumental in the organising of these landless and homeless groups. Central to this mobilisation has been the encouragement that all workers to join the NREGA workers union in Punjab, started and still administered by DDVA. In 2011, only two years after its creation in Punjab, there were 6,000 members from 56 of Punjab’s 144 blocks. The primary goal of the union is to ensure that workers receive the benefits of the NREGA scheme which will help secure their livelihood rights.
Daljit Kaur’s Story
“Even birds have nests yet as a human I had no place to shelter my children from the sun, rains and shivering cold. At last I have got it I will fight to keep it!”
“Sat Sri Akal”. I am Daljit Kaur born and brought up in a communist family. My father and his friends always used to discuss the revolution in Russia and China’s landless agriculture labourers and their struggle for freedom. They used to discuss the exploitation carried out by the rich landlords and the traders against the poor and landless and dream of a better future.
Like other young people, my husband became a “Siri” (a bonded labourer). He and I used to work tirelessly, only to see our debt growing day by day. We feared that, like others from our community, we may have to spend the whole life in debt bondage.
One day we learnt from an elder in our village, Baggicha Singh, of an organization which liberates bonded labourers. We approached Volunteers for Social Justice who assisted my husband liberate himself after spending several years in bondage.
However, like many others labourers in our village, we were landless and had no place to live. We all occupied vacant government land which was not used for any purpose and had divided this up into small plots of 125 square yards where we constructed our houses. The Panchayat (Local Self Government of village) later decided that they wanted to demolish our houses, an act which again would have left us homeless. With the help of the VSJ the demolition order was prevented and we were to get this land – home to thirty five families – regularized.
Now I have four children, two daughters and two sons who all are studying. With the help of VSJ we got election cards, ration cards and a MGNREGA job card. My husband has trained as a Stone Mason and now earns a sufficient amount to support the family.
I too work as a daily wager. After initially struggling to gain the benefits of the MGNREGA scheme, myself and other members of my
community joined the NRGA workers union. I have been elected as President of my village unit and the scheme is operating better. I now feel it is the revolution which my father and his friends use to dream of.
In 2012, in protest against the poor implementation of the NGREGA scheme in Punjab, DDVA helped mobilise 10,000 workers who protested in New Delhi. The outcome of the protests was the increase in the MGRENGA daily wage from Rs.124 to RS.153.
Atrocities Against Women
Women are the most vulnerable section of society in India. Not only is their body often the battle ground through which caste and religious discrimination asserts itself, but even within their own communities women are treated as subservient to their male counterparts. Punjab’s unequal sex ratio means that men far outnumber women and means that women are increasingly treated as physical objects rather than as equal fellow citizens. The high profile incident of a 23 year old being gangraped in Delhi in December 2012 has been followed by reports of similar incidences in Punjab, something which is by no means a recent phenomenon. This has confirmed our contentions that women continue to be the most vulnerable groups within our society.
We work closely with the lower caste communities to sensitise them to the ideas of equality and respect with regard to their women. At VSJ we are committed to promoting the role of women both at home and in the workplace. To do this we hold women only conclaves which are attended by women only and are run by VSJ’s women staff. The purpose of these conclaves is to educate women about their rights and empower them through collective action.
Story of Sara
Sara, a Dalit girl from the village of Prai Mal Bhala, attended a school at which she was the only girl her age. The school was 3kms from her home, and she used a bicycle to cover the distance.
Whilst repairing a puncture two boys from her village came up on a motorcycle and asked if she wanted a lift to school to avoid being late. As she knew who they were, she accepted the request and got on the bike. They took her to a house in the middle of some fields where she was dragged into a room, stripped and raped.
On telling her mother what had happened once she had got home, she was told to keep her mouth shut to avoid costing Sara’s father the legal expenses that would be involved in a complaint. However, when she told her father, he insisted they complain
Having had a medical examination and filed a complaint, the Station House Officer concluded that her case appeared to be false and that it didn’t warrant any further action. What is more, the accused’s families were threatening Sara’s family with firearms.
To mark Rural Women’s Day – 15 October 2009, DDVA organised a Women’s Conclave in Punjab to demand residential land in Punjab. The events were organised in twenty-five block in Punjab with 7,574 women participating. Without a home or land, many women lack the privacy that they require and therefore continue to be humiliated in public. These conclaves demanded that land be given to landless families from these blocks. The conclave was successful in getting the Deputy Commissioners of Districts Jalandhar and Ferozpur to instruct Block Development and Panchayat Officers under their jurisdiction to initiate the process of allotment of homestead land to the homeless people.
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