Slavery and Its Definition
Jean Allain and Kevin Bales
The Bellagio–Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery
The Scourge of Slavery: The Contemporary Reality of an International Human Rights Challenge
David K. Androff
Absolving the State: The Trafficking–Slavery Metaphor
Julia O’Connell Davidson
Rethinking Trafficking: Patriarchy, Poverty, and Private Wrongs in India
Alison Brysk and Aditee Maskey
Children Trafficked to the United States: Myths and Realities
Elzbieta M. Gozdziak
Debt-Bondage Slavery in India
The Many Faces of Slavery: The Example of Domestic Work
Child Domestic Workers: Protected Persons or Modern-Day Slaves?
Forcing Children to Bear Arms: A Contemporary Form of Slavery
Michael G. Wessells
Abused Migrant Women in the United States: Progress, Challenges and Recommendations
Gabriela Wasileski and Mark J. Miller
Repairing Past Injustice: Remarks on the Politics of Reparations for Slavery in the United States
Libya: The Road to Regime Change
Volume 14 ● Number 2 ● Summer/Autumn 2012—Slavery Today
Debt-Bondage Slavery in India
The objectives of this paper are to outline the socio-political context in India that has allowed the continuation of slavery, to describe the practice of Indian debt bondage, to identify the current anti-slavery laws and organisations in the country, and to recommend interventions that may improve the present set of circumstances.
The Social Consequences of Caste
To understand the social structure in India, it is imperative to outline the caste system. This system of social hierarchy is the most important contributory factor in debt-bondage slavery. The caste system has been described as uniquely Indian,1 and it is unlikely that slavery could exist without it since the majority of slaves are Dalits (the lowest social group, actually outside the traditional varna system of caste).
Caste is one of the oldest customs in India, the roots of which date back more than three thousand years. In theory, the hierarchy consists of four tiers, or varnas. These varnas include the Brahmins, the highest caste, traditionally consisting of priests and scholars; the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers; the Vaishya, merchants; and the Shudra, peasants, labourers, and servants. The Dalits have been known as the “Untouchables” (including Scheduled Castes/SCs and Scheduled Tribes/STs, which will be referred to as Dalits for the purposes of this paper) and were not part of the original ranking system. Technically speaking they remain outside the varna structure today.
In 1935, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act with the professed intention of balancing British and Indian economic interests, yet according to Jawaharlal Nehru in reality it strengthened the roles of elites (both British and Indian) while excluding the possibility of interference by representatives of the Indian people.2 The act broadly separated Brahmin and “non-Brahmin” castes, presumably to simplify the structure of the caste system for British understanding. The non-Brahmin groups were classified into the categories of “backward classes” and “depressed classes”, which later became Scheduled Castes. (It is important to remember that individuals are born into their caste status; therefore, caste affiliations have little to do with life choices and are largely beyond one’s control.)
The importance placed on the caste system by the British had dire consequences. Social inequality was ingrained in British-ruled India. Nicholas B. Dirks has posited that “Caste became the colonial form of civil society; it justified the denial of political rights to Indian subjects (not citizens) and explained the necessity of colonial rule”.3 India is steeped in tradition, and caste has been socially accepted and tolerated throughout its history, especially since its reinforcement during the British colonial era. Although the Indian Constitution (passed in 1950) includes numerous articles that specifically prohibit all forms of “Untouchability”, discrimination, and exclusion according to caste (as well as race, sex, or religion), the reality is that caste is still a detrimental and obstructive factor for the “weak” or lower classes. It is common for Dalits to experience discrimination in the form of arbitrary detention, rape, torture, murder, the withholding of resources (including disaster relief), and segregation or complete exclusion from schools, places of worship, housing, public services, and private businesses.
An underlying factor in caste discrimination is the widespread social acceptance of individual caste status as the foundation of personal identity. Sukhadeo Thorat provides an insightful summation of the societal effects of the caste system:
The unit of society is not the individual. Even the family is not regarded as a unit of society … The primary unit of society is caste. There is no room for individual merit and the consideration of individual justice. Any rights that an individual has are not due to him personally; it is due to him because he belongs to a particular caste.4
Thorat’s analysis makes clear that while the caste system prevails, Dalits will never experience social justice. Under the caste system, India has evaded the Western model of individualistic society. Embracing individualism and/or egalitarianism is not essential, but finding a balance between the two is necessary for recognising the human rights of Dalits.
Debt-bondage slavery is a practice that has a long-standing history in India, with its roots in the caste system. Wealthy higher-caste landlords typically give small loans to destitute individuals and/or families without assets, whose labour is their only means of repayment. It is clear that land ownership, wealth, power, and higher caste status are interrelated. Dalits have been coerced into working the land of others, because they have no opportunity to purchase land of their own. By and large, the only asset belonging to the Dalits is their labour. Many Dalit families currently residing in rural India began as migrant labourers and settled upon finding agricultural or quarry work. Employment agencies have often been used to help migrant workers find positions with upper-caste landlords, and in such circumstances the fee paid by the landlord to the agency becomes the worker’s debt.5 Without the caste system, it is unlikely that debt bondage would continue as a socially accepted reality; it would be more widely challenged as a violation of fundamental human rights.
Although India is culturally diverse in many ways, an unfortunate common thread is found in debt-bondage slavery. Eighteen of India’s twenty-two states have documented cases of debt bondage: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and West Bengal.6 Debt bondage is the most common form of slavery in the world, and an estimated 80 per cent of bonded labourers in India work in the agricultural sector.7 As reported by Anti-Slavery International, many other Indian workplaces employ bonded labourers, including brick kilns, stone quarries, silk farms, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, mines, forests, match and firework factories, tea and cardamom plantations, shrimp farms, cigarette factories, domestic households, and textile plants.8
Agricultural debt-bondage slavery is directly related to land possession. Many rural Indian families who were once free (typically landless) farmers fell upon hardship and saw no other choice but to take out a loan from a local landlord in order to keep working the land. With no assets or belongings, the debtors (and often their families) pledge their own lives and labour as collateral against the debt to the landlord. Having bonded labourers instead of paid employees is advantageous for Indian landlords because their profits can exceed 50 per cent, compared to less than 1 per cent if the minimum wage is paid. The debts are not considered legitimate by any governmental authority, yet landlords often manage to sustain them over many generations. Working to pay off debt without receiving wages leads to the trap of bondage. During the period of bondage, families accrue more debt whenever there is a need for medical care, additional foodstuffs, to hold a ceremony (e.g., a wedding or funeral), or if a worker is fined for being absent or stealing, etc. The landlord, or creditor, tacks the cost of such necessities onto the existing debt. Additionally, a standard procedure for Indian landlords is that all of the worker’s labour is applied against only the interest of the debt; the principal must be paid in cash.
The conditions of agricultural debt bondage are so abhorrent that thousands of farmers, when faced with the possibility of a lifetime in bondage, have chosen to commit suicide.9 More than 180,000 Indian farmers are estimated to have committed suicide since 1997 because of their formidable debts. The Indian government attempted to cancel the farmers’ debts with a $13 billion bailout, which was unsuccessful since an estimated 88 per cent of debts were owed to private creditors (landlords).10 The suicides indicate the magnitude of desperation experienced by millions of landless low-caste individuals in rural India. Taking out a loan truly is a matter of life and death, and thousands have chosen death as a more favourable option than embarking upon a life of slavery for oneself and one’s family.
A significant number of bonded labourers in India are children. As with the number of slaves in India, the number of children in bonded labour is disputed, yet Human Rights Watch has reported that it is at least fifteen million. In India, children most often fall into debt bondage because of the actions of their parents. Debt inheritance is a common way for children to become indebted to a landlord. Child debt bondage also occurs when money is borrowed (usually by parents, sometimes by children) from a business-owner or landlord. Parents knowingly send their children away to work (often in another state) in order to receive an advance on the children’s wages, making the children comparable to commodities exchanged between the parents and the employers.11 The cash advance is often considered a loan, and accrues interest over time. Some parents send their daughters to work to earn money to pay for their weddings; such girls are known as Sumangali. In rural areas, landlords expect the debt to be worked off by any means necessary, and in some villages families have been in bondage for two hundred years, over eight generations.12
Employers subject child slaves to extremely hazardous work conditions, perhaps because children are unlikely to defy orders given by an imposing adult authority. Many industries that employ child slaves occupy dimly lit buildings with poor ventilation, leading to damaged eyesight and the spread of infectious diseases. In the silk industry, children work with boiling water, frequently suffering severe burns, scars, and the removal of skin on their hands and feet. Children are especially susceptible to various forms of maltreatment because of their inherent vulnerability. Incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse are common in cases of child slavery. Children working in stone quarries are made to carry explosives because their small bodies are a better fit for the tight cracks in the stone.13
The working conditions of those held in debt bondage constitute a form of slavery because they are in gross violation of fundamental human rights and established laws, and severely restrict the freedom of individuals. Debt bondage is based upon two principles: that an individual is required to work under the threat of a penalty, and that the service performed is involuntary. The penalties and restrictions placed upon bonded labourers are the key differentiators between debt-bondage slavery and otherwise poor working conditions. Servitude is compulsory for bonded labourers because they work under the threat of further human rights violations, psychological or physical abuse, or possible death in the event of non-compliance.
Weak rural infrastructure is a central factor in the continuation of debt bondage, and is related to caste discrimination. Fewer Dalits would be forced to take loans from landlords if their access to vital resources was supported by higher castes. Without access to education, land ownership, food security, potable water, health care, decent employment and housing, and legitimate credit, many Dalits will continue to take out illegitimate loans as a means of meeting their needs in times of desperation. Widespread discrimination against the Dalits has undermined their human rights and hindered rural development overall, as only higher castes are permitted to advance.
The right to education is vital for advancement, yet discrimination against Dalit children in rural schools discourages them from attending. Schools are sometimes deliberately established in areas less accessible to Dalits, and Dalit children suffer verbal and physical abuse from both teachers and students. Education is fundamental to the achievement of equal opportunities through knowledge of human rights and basic laws—knowledge that many Westerners take for granted as common sense. The continuation of inequality in the educational sphere is likely to remove the possibility of further development for India’s Dalit population.
Rural labour-market discrimination in India is yet another caste-based obstacle to social and economic freedom for the Dalits. A 2003 study of three rural villages in the states of Orissa, Gujarat, and Maharashtra found several levels of labour-market discrimination, ranging from “complete exclusion of low-caste persons from employment by the [higher-castes]”, to selective inclusion in employment, to debt-bondage slavery, described as “forced work for low-caste Untouchables, imposed by traditional caste-based obligations leading to overwork and loss of freedom”.14 The traditional view of Dalits as impure and contaminated is a serious hindrance in terms of employment options. It seems that Dalits will never be hired for positions that could be filled by higher castes, which may guarantee the reproduction of the caste system for generations to come.
Also associated with bonded labour is the denial of access to land ownership. Acquisition of land is arguably the most prudent way for Dalits to become upwardly mobile; therefore, it is necessary to ensure a clear passage through this channel. Land has been identified as the most important asset in Indian agrarian economies because its possession “is a symbol of entitlement, power and privileges and is synonymous with not only the economic status of a household but its social status as well”.15 Besides status, employment options (especially self-employment) in rural areas are heavily contingent on land ownership. In rural India, the number of Scheduled Castes in 1994 who cultivated their own land (about 20 per cent of rural SCs) amounted to less than half the number of higher castes who owned and cultivated land.16 Bonded labour is certain to persist so long as land rights are systematically denied to Dalits.
Justice is often blocked by the severely congested Indian court system. There are at least twenty-five million cases pending in courts, and most cases take decades to reach resolution, therefore millions of cases never reach courts. The rule of law has disintegrated in India to the point at which it is nearly impossible to conduct business, preserve human rights, or achieve justice through legitimate/lawful channels.17 The fundamental problems are the lack of access to a speedy trial, low rates of conviction, intensive prison overcrowding due to “undertrial” (individuals imprisoned while their trials are in progress), and administrative corruption, apathy, and non-performance.18
Political corruption discourages individuals without the necessary connections from running for public office, the filing of incident reports with police, and the bringing of claims to trial. It has become ingrained in public sentiment that justice is unlikely to be achieved through legal means, so it is improbable that the Dalits will experience social justice and equality via complaints through the judicial system. Without the support of local public servants (e.g., politicians and/or police), bonded labourers have virtually no recourse within the Indian government to seek refuge from tyrannical landlords. Corruption within the political and judicial spheres has perpetuated the quiet acceptance of forced bonded labour and social inequality in India.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 (BLSA), incorporated into the Constitution of India during Indira Gandhi’s administration, was a significant step towards the abolition of debt bondage. The BLSA applied to all of India, clearly defined terms relevant to bonded labour, and outlined what practices were to be forbidden. It was explicitly stated that upon the commencement of the act every bonded labourer was to be released, any agreements entailing bonded labour were void, and that henceforth any agreements to render individuals as bonded labourers were prohibited.
As with many other human rights/anti-slavery laws, the BLSA has been poorly enforced. Upon its commencement, thousands of bonded labourers were identified, released, and rehabilitated by the state. But Anti-Slavery International has reported that since the 1990s, “the process of identification and release has dramatically slowed and government authorities have downplayed the extent of bonded labour in India and failed to recognise new forms of bonded labour.”19 It is true that the number of bonded labourers is highly disputed and imprecise, but even the lowest estimate offered by researchers (approximately eight million) dwarfs the number reported in 2009 as having been “identified and released” by the Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment, documented at 288,098 people. The 2008–9 annual report put out by the Ministry of Labour and Employment also noted that in May 2000 the central government was to have provided funding for programmes directed at the identification, rehabilitation, and education of bonded labourers. It is apparent that any actions taken by the central government under the BLSA are outdated and it is possible that little has been done for nearly a decade.
Aside from the government, many other organisations in India have bonded labour on their agendas, such as the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC). NIRD has recognised that individuals often fall into bonded labour because they are forced to take out loans to survive the “lean season”, when food is scarce during July and August. In Maharashtra, the Academy of Development Science (ADS) has established grain banks in conjunction with NIRD to ensure that SC and ST families in rural areas have access to grain during the lean season without taking out loans from landlords. Borrowers must contribute grain to the bank throughout the year, and must repay their grain loans over a four-year period. The grain-bank programme is one example of a positive step for rural development and a legitimate alternative to falling into the trap of debt bondage.
The NHRC was founded as part of India’s 1993 Human Rights Act. The NHRC has a mechanism for citizens to register complaints of human rights violations, and bonded labour is on a list of the major types of recently filed complaints. Seemingly the most active and effectual body against debt bondage in India, the NHRC has carried out numerous reports and investigations as recently as April 2010. Its actions have ranged from liberating groups of bonded labourers to mounting legal challenges against decisions made by state governments on bonded-labour issues. One of the NHRC’s current projects involves establishing human rights “cells” or offices throughout India, an important step in addressing large-scale human rights violations.
The mission of CEC is to provide education about Indian workers. CEC has a specific focus on understanding the evolution of labour relations in an increasingly globalised world, defending labour rights and democratic rights, and providing a means for organising trade unions and people’s movements. Spreading information on debt-bondage slavery can be considered a form of action against it, and CEC has taken the initiative to publish many documents and maintain a website (bondedlabour.org) to address the practice of forced/bonded labour in India. CEC is the most laudable organisation working for labour rights in India, especially because of its efforts to provide a store of reliable information pertaining to debt bondage, and for partnering with numerous NGOs and other organisations (e.g., the National Campaign for Labour Rights, the Campaign against Child Labour, the Campaign against Child Trafficking, and the Indian Social Institute) to accomplish its goals.
All of the aforementioned organisations are working towards fulfilling human rights initiatives and eliminating debt-bondage slavery. The steps taken by CEC, the NHRC, and NIRD to improve human-rights and labour-rights standards for India’s working poor represent significant accomplishments. However, their basic limitation is that they are small organisations unlikely to have the capacity to extend their positive influence throughout all of India. It is important for CEC and the NHRC to disseminate information in print rather than electronically, as only a small percentage of Indians have Internet access. Expansion of these organisations will be crucial to future success, as establishing a presence in multiple locations will spread awareness of their campaign against debt bondage.
The ILO (International Labour Organisation) promotes microfinance initiatives as potentially preventative measures against debt bondage. The ILO’s Social Finance Programme stated in a working paper that
microfinance is not sufficient to prevent bondage, but a group-based savings and credit delivery mechanism can be an excellent vehicle to provide other essential services for economic and social empowerment … related activities should strengthen the capacity of households to generate a livelihood, contribute to the reduction of expenses that can push them into bondage, reduce their economic and social dependence on the employer, and support their greater social inclusion in the community.20
Microfinance is the most plausible way for bonded labourers to build capital for personal use and lift themselves out of the desperate financial circumstances that drive individuals to take out loans. NGOs will be the main force behind rural microfinance programmes, since Indian banks have a history of imposing drastic increases in loan interest rates and confiscating land and homes from rural farmers.21 Having the ability to save money will provide means of establishing a financial safety net and increase the potential for social mobility, if the money is used to purchase productive assets such as land or to establish a small business.
The Indian government is often silent on the issue of internal social inequality, so the following public analogy by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was all the more striking:
Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of “untouchability” was Apartheid in South Africa. Untouchability is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on humanity.22
This admission by Prime Minister Singh may be considered a glimmer of hope for the future of India’s social climate. Drawing a comparison between Untouchability and Apartheid may be advantageous in this case, as the dissolution of Apartheid may serve as a model for the dissolution of caste. Lindsay Talmud, a South African peace worker concerned with the Israel‑Palestine conflict, has identified “Six South African Lessons” from the fall of Apartheid that he believes may be useful for Israel–Palestine.23 Some of the fundamental similarities between the South African and Israel–Palestine conflicts are also shared by the caste conflict in India: all three cases involve a long-standing social conflict based upon differences in personal identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, and class), and feature elitist governments, widespread violence, and oppression of the group perceived as being of lower status.
Among the six lessons identified by Talmud are some that may have resonance for the dissolution of caste in India: “The South African model suggests that the decisive factor is the readiness to engage in the process of change, not the promise of a particular result.”24 The Indian government would be wise to follow this advice and take steps towards reform because it is time to make significant changes to the current system, rather than hesitate for fear of failure or possible adverse outcomes (as in the last five decades of botched land-reform plans). Although the collapse of Apartheid marked the failure of one political system it signified the birth of another, which meant positive changes for South Africa overall. At present it seems improbable that the Indian government will admit fault for the continuation of caste but it is important that it take responsibility for the welfare of its people and make changes accordingly.
Another important South African lesson applicable to the dissolution of caste in India is that change must be accomplished through negotiation rather than violence. Higher castes have often succeeded in keeping lower castes down through the use of violence, which perpetuates the current conflict and inhibits social progress.
In contrast with Apartheid in South Africa, Untouchability in India is outlawed by the country’s Constitution. The South African lesson with the greatest salience for the Indian government is that
Real change became possible only after both sides admitted that they faced a lose–lose situation. Change is possible only when you realize that the path you are on is leading nowhere or perhaps to catastrophe … Conversely, the struggle will continue as long as one side believes that it can win and impose its will on the other side.25
It is apparent that India’s existing legislation against caste discrimination has been largely ineffectual. A necessary step in the eradication of caste is for upper-caste Hindus to recognise that it is an unsustainable practice, and that coexistence with those perceived as “untouchable” is preferable to the current oppression and denial of human rights. Upper-caste Hindus believe they can win the battle of caste because, so far, they have generally been victorious. The caste struggle, and by extension debt bondage, will continue until the upper-caste perpetuators are made to understand that Dalits share the same constitutional rights as every Indian citizen.
Central and state government reform is imperative in producing lasting social progress in India. A turning point has been reached at which the Indian government must make changes to benefit directly its population as a whole. Funding has been amply provided for economic development and defence programmes, but much of the Indian public continues to suffer extreme poverty and deprivation. Reforms must be made to address inadequacies related to limited funding and poor implementation in such areas as the police service, Supreme Court, land reform, and various ministries and departments within the central government. It is time for India to admit and accept the failure of the caste system, and move forward to build a stronger social fabric that does not accommodate the practice of debt bondage.
2. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 284.
3. Dirks, Castes of Mind, p. 16.
4. Sukhadeo Thorat, “Oppression and Denial: Dalit Discrimination in the 1990s”, Economic and Political Weekly 37 (2002), p. 576.
5. See Kevin Bales, Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 61.
6. Government of India, Ministry of Labour and Employment, “Annual Report 2008–2009”, New Delhi, 2009, p. 83.
7. Government of India, National Commission on Rural Labour, “1991 Report”, New Delhi, 1991, section 8.6.
8. Krishna Prasad Upadhyaya, “Poverty, Discrimination and Slavery: The Reality of Bonded Labour in India, Nepal and Pakistan”, Anti-Slavery International, London, 2008, p. 7.
9. Benjamin E. Skinner, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (New York: Free Press, 2008), p. 215.
10. Deutsche-Presse Agentur, “Over 30 Indebted Farmers Commit Suicide in Western India”, 4 April 2010.
11. Human Rights Watch, “Small Change: Bonded Child Labour in India’s Silk Industry”, Human Rights Watch 15 (2003), pp. 16–18.
12. Skinner, A Crime So Monstrous, p. 211.
13. Ibid., p. 204.
14. Sukhadeo Thorat, M. Mahamallik, and Nidhi Sadana, “Caste System and Pattern of Discrimination in Rural Markets”, in Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India, ed. Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine S. Newman (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 150.
15. H. R. Sharma, “Distribution of Landholdings in Rural India, 1953–54 to 1981–82: Implications for Land Reforms”, Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 13 (1994), A-12.
16. Sukhadeo Thorat, “Oppression and Denial”, p. 573.
17. Jayaprakash Narayan, “Organized Crime, Corruption, and Democracy”, in Challenges to Democracy in India, ed. Rajesh M. Basrur (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 99–101.
18. Rafique Dada, “The Judiciary and Indian Democracy”, in Challenges to Democracy in India, ed. Basrur, pp. 67–72.
19. Upadhyaya, “Poverty, Discrimination and Slavery”, p. 16.
20. Patrick Daru, Craig Churchill, and Erik Beemsterboer, “The Prevention of Debt Bondage with Microfinance-led Services”, European Journal of Development Research 17, no. 1 (March 2005), p. 140.
21. Jose George and P. Krishnaprasad, “Agrarian Distress and Farmers’ Suicides in the Tribal District of Wayanad”, Social Scientist 34, no. 7/8 (July–August 2006), p. 75.
22. Human Rights Watch, “India: ‘Hidden Apartheid’ of Discrimination against Dalits”, Human Rights Watch 19 (2007), p. 3.
23. Lindsay Talmud, “Six South African Lessons”, Palestine–Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 14, no. 2 (2007), p. 96.
25. Ibid., p. 98.